Elizabeth’s journey to entrepreneurship brought her to a place where she identified the type of business or brand she wanted to build, long before she knew what the product or service offering was to be. She simply knew that she wanted to develop an eCommerce brand. She then needed to figure out what product she wanted to sell. In this episode, Elizabeth shares the actual process she went through to leverage product opportunity research on Amazon. She even shares the tools she utilized for her research and those links can be found in the show notes.
My guest this week is Elizabeth Grojean, founder of Baloo Living. Baloo living is an ecommerce brand that launched with a singular product…a weighted blanket. Within a few months of her launch the Baloo blanket was on every single Holiday Shopping Guide as “the blanket of the holidays”. Her story is remarkable for a few reasons and I’m super pumped to bring it to you.
First, her business launch didn’t start from a product or service…it started from a channel. Elizabeth knew that she wanted to build an ecommerce brand…she just needed to figure out what category.
Secondly, in this episode she shares with us the tactics she used to discover what category to enter based on her Amazon data analysis. You are going to want to make sure to listen to this full episode with pen and paper in hand because she unpacks each step just for you!
But before we get to the success story…we need to make sure we understand the full journey because every single chapter of our journey contributes to where we are today…ESPECIALLY Elizabeth’s entrepreneurial journey.
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Elizabeth Grojean: This is Elizabeth Grojean, founder of Baloo Living, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. Before we jump into this week's episode I want to share a few opportunities you have to bring your business and brand to my audience of 85,000 listeners, and the first one is absolutely free. If you want to plug your brand in an upcoming episode of The Startup Story then make sure to leave a written review on Apple Podcast. And also in that review make sure you plug your brand in it. That way when I read your review in an episode it will be like a free ad within the episode of The Startup Story because your plugged brand or URL or social media account will be in that read. Again, this opportunity is completely free. It just takes a few moments of your time. So just go to the Apple Podcast platform right now, leave five stars and a written review, and we can get rolling in plugging your brand within an upcoming episode of The Startup Story.
The second opportunity is the traditional advertising route. This one you don't hear too much about because like most startup founders we aren't the best at celebrating our successes. Well, brands that have advertised on The Startup Story have seen results that exceed all expectations. Brands like Brex, the credit card for startups, and Design Pickle, all have come back and said the ROI from advertising with The Startup Story surpasses campaigns they've run with 10X the size of The Startup Story. So if you want to share your brand, product, or service with The Startup Story audience then drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let's see if we can put together a great campaign concept for you. Again, it's email@example.com and of course we'll leave the email in the show notes for easy access. Now, let's jump into this week's episode.
My guest this week is Elizabeth Grojean, founder of Baloo Living. Baloo Living is an ecommerce brand that launched with a singular product: a weighted blanket. Now, within a few months of her launch the Baloo blanket was on every single holiday shopping guide as the blanket of the holidays. Her story is remarkable for a few reasons and I'm super pumped to bring her to you. First, her business launch didn't start with a product or service. It started with a channel. Elizabeth knew that she wanted to build an ecommerce brand; she just needed to figure out what category. The second reason I'm pumped about this episode is that in this episode she shares with us the tactics she used to discover what category to enter based on her Amazon data analysis, and you're going to want to make sure to listen to this full episode with pen and paper in hand because she unpacks each step for you. But before we get to the success story we need to make sure we understand the full journey. Because every single chapter of our journey contributes to where we are today, especially Elizabeth's entrepreneurial journey.
Elizabeth Grojean: It was nothing I ever recognized as a career path or with a label per se. my dad's entrepreneurial. He's an engineer and he was an intrapreneur within his company, Walter K. Moore, where he proposed opening a new office in San Antonio and they said yes. So he came to Texas from, sorry he was in Houston so he relocated us and opened up that office, got very involved in the city planning and city dynamics. And then he and his father saw an opportunity to launch an RV park and this was the 80s when RVs were kind of becoming a thing. And there was a Sea World opening up in town, and so they saw okay lots of families, RVs, we're going to put this park by Sea World. And so that was their-
James McKinney: I love it.
Elizabeth Grojean: You know it sounds funny, RVs, but it was a pretty big capital investment and it was a beautiful park with lots of trees and a swimming pool. A kind of high end park for family vacations.
James McKinney: I love it.
Elizabeth Grojean: So he had his kids. There's three girls licking envelopes, you know, mailers, things like that. So I think we were kind of along for the ride at home on that. And then I was always entrepreneurial. I would sell stuff to my sisters. We did lemonade stands. I'd say, "Okay, we're going to have a garage sale. I'm going to sell my My Little Ponies," and make flyers for the neighborhood. Of course one person would come, but that didn't matter.
James McKinney: I love it. Now coming to the end of your high school years did you think entrepreneurship was what your future had for you? What were your ambitions at that point?
Elizabeth Grojean: No, by that time I felt very confused about how to make choices about career and life, and it felt very much like you get one shot to choose and don't choose wrong. And so I decided to go in the direction of business and marketing because I'd been accepted to UT's business school, which was an honor to be accepted. Marketing I thought will give me the least contact to math. I wanted to avoid math.
James McKinney: That's hilarious.
Elizabeth Grojean: I was very much just trying to look at what was expected of me and how could I sort of meet society's expectations at that point.
James McKinney: That's an interesting phrase, meet society's expectations. So for you was it the expectation of just you're about to pick your lifelong trajectory at this very moment, or was there something related to, and again I'm grasping at straws, I'm not trying to assume anything, was there something related to the fact that you were a female and therefore the idea of entrepreneurship was not even something that you could consider? Explain that phrase a bit more for me.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. I don't think I had a lot of… besides my dad, I didn't have any exposure to entrepreneurship around me, and I saw my options very much as a series of kind of check boxes. You pick a major, you get a job, you go into a field. And I think as a woman I had also related to my choices in my life in a sense to be about being pleasing and being popular. I'd done the sorority route. I was a cheerleader. I kind of did the things that I felt like I was supposed to do. I had a lot of questions about that. I definitely questioned it. I quit the cheerleading team a year early, which was my rebellion. That brought me a lot of joy to be honest, but I had a pretty limited point of view at that time, just being 18 or 19 relating to college.
James McKinney: Interesting. So you pick marketing. Obviously marketing is a fantastic degree to go for, but what did you think you wanted to do with that? Again, back to your limited understanding. You saw your dad and that's obviously our immediate influences are those around us. Obviously the school is going to sell certain things based on what the career trajectory is, but what did you think you wanted to do with that degree choice?
Elizabeth Grojean: I honestly was trying to procrastinate on that decision for as long as possible because I didn't know, and I saw marketing as a general degree that would have broad applications. So you could take a marketing degree into any field and so I thought hopefully this answer will come to me eventually. To be honest, it never really did until I became an entrepreneur and everything clicked into place. And all these different experiences that I'd had sort of looking for the right fit seemed to now in hindsight add up and make sense. I was like oh that's why I had to go on all these different trials or tests to acquire these skills or get this knowledge or insight that I can now use as an entrepreneur.
James McKinney: And that's what I love about the entrepreneurial journey is that for many people it is a breadcrumb trail. There's moments and seasons of our life that kind of help equip and build us to what it is we're ultimately going to become, and that becoming an entrepreneur. So when you think of the breadcrumbs, let's continue along this journey. Now you're at the end of college. You're now choosing a career, you're choosing a company. UT a prestigious school as much as it pains me to say that because I'm a USC Trojans fan, so that is a school that you could probably get a job anywhere that you choose to. What was your next step out of college?
Elizabeth Grojean: It's a pretty underwhelming choice that I made which was to go to work for my dad. He has an architecture engineering firm, and it was sort of a default decision because I was dating a guy in the Marine Corps, and we broke up the summer I graduated from college. So my grand plan to go live in southern California by the beach didn't pan out, so I was like okay well I'll come work for my dad as the marketing coordinator in this midsized commercial architecture firm. So I ended up there for a couple of years and then 2008 came, the financial meltdown.
Oh now, I've kind of gone out of order. So I worked them for a little while and then I knew I wanted to get out of Texas. I'd never had a chance to leave the state. My younger sister got a scholarship and basically got wooed by Princeton, ended up on the East Coast which was very different for our high school. There were not a lot of Ivy Leaguers coming out of my public high school in San Antonio. So I saw the experience that she had. I'd always wanted to live in New York City, wanted to get out of Texas. So I hopped around a bit. I went to DC, worked for a lobbyist on the Hill. I was like eh, DC is a weird city, not so much for me. A career in politics, I don't think so. So then I went to Chicago. This was me avoiding kind of I was intimidated by New York. I really wanted to be there but I was intimidated. So then I went to Chicago and I got a job at BBDO which is an ad agency obviously. Got an account, had a lot of fun, worked really late nights and partied a lot with my agency people. But Chicago, you know, cold, not for me.
Ended up back in Texas sort of regrouping because I think that's a lot to go through as a young person. You're looking for your place in the world, changing jobs, changing cities, friend groups, there was a lot of disruption. And came back to San Antonio sort of to recover I think from what I felt like were two failures because I hadn't found my fit. And went to work again for my dad which was sort of a safe landing spot. Really turned inward and did a lot of personal work at that point. I took the Landmark Forum, which is a personal development course. Took a lot more of their courses just on leadership and sort of trying to understand my deeper motivations or insecurities, and find out why that was driving me because it wasn't working. So I actually was able to accomplish a lot in that personal development arena. Okay, realized New York is where I want to go. I don't have to really make a big deal about it. Go there, had a great time. I mean I was happy ever since I got there, but in the career field ended up trying a lot of different things once again. I started a job at Blackrock. I was an administrative assistant. Really smart people.
James McKinney: Yeah.
Elizabeth Grojean: But super corporate. I was like this isn't really for me either because I was so driven and passionate with my work. I wanted to work hard and feel that tangible reward of the payoff of my work making a difference wherever I was. So that wasn't happening there. So I took that experience and said I really want to work in a startup environment where I can go to work with people who are not there for politics, they're not there for a paycheck. They're there inspired and motivated to build something, because I want to be part of building something. I didn't really care what kind of startup it was, but the first one I interviewed with was a tequila company.
James McKinney: I love it.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. And I love Mexico. I'd studied abroad in Mexico and have a really deep connection to that country. The founder is a woman from Mexico. She's the first woman ever accepted into the Maestro Tequilero, which is like the boys club that runs Tequila.
James McKinney: Wow.
Elizabeth Grojean: And it was a very beautiful brand. It's called Casa Dragones Tequila. At the time they were selling for $275 a bottle, and just very, very beautiful product. I was very inspired by that. I was her executive assistant for two years and that's where I learned the most about building a business, a company, and a brand.
James McKinney: Let me ask. We've covered a lot of ground in this run through, and there's a couple key moments I want to make sure I unpack because I think I'm super curious and I'm sure my audience will be as well. Let's put some time stamps on these things. So you come back from Chicago, wrestling with some internal conversations of failure because you feel like you hadn't found yourself yet. What year was this? How old were you? Let's give us a timeframe for this moment.
Elizabeth Grojean: I would have been 27 or 28 when I came back from Chicago.
James McKinney: 27 or 28. And I think there's a lot of people listening to the podcast right now that are probably thinking to themselves wow, 27 or 28 that's a lot of pressure to put on yourself to think you have to have it all figured out then. But I also probably have some of my audience that's thinking, "You're damn right you've got to figure it out by then." Depending on where people are coming from, that is either a high expectation… well, it's a high expectation either way but it's an assumption they have on themselves as well, or it's something that they're looking back on thinking man that's a bit much for yourself there. Why do you think you were in that place at 27 thinking that because you had come back, because you had in my mind traveled various states which most people don't get to do, seen various types of office environments and job opportunities which again not a lot of people do sometimes, so to me I just see opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. But you saw it as a point of failure. Why is that?
Elizabeth Grojean: Yes. What I came to find out later, much later actually is that I was looking for my career path to define me and give me value, and give me a place in society instead of recognizing that I don't need my job or my title or my work to do that for me.
James McKinney: Yes. And I hope everyone listening can hang on that statement for a moment there. The idea that what you're doing, your career or even your startup, the outcomes of that are not a value statement on you as an individual. And I love that you said that because for myself coming off of four failed startups, that was part of my journey. I just kept processing what am I doing wrong. Is it me? Is it my own makeup? What was it about me? And quickly I got to a point where it wasn't a value statement on me, but I know so many people that the outcome of their job, the outcome of their relationship, the outcome of their business, their startup it is about them. It is personal to them. And so I'm just so grateful for you to share that learning and that insight for my audience, because it's just another data point within the reference, like okay this isn't about me. This is my business, this is my product, this is my service, whatever the case may be. The success or failure, again to the flip side of that the successes of it is also not us either, right?
Elizabeth Grojean: Exactly.
James McKinney: Let's not over inflate the moment either, like oh I'm having massive success, look how great I am. Well no, because then if it ever does fail it's also not on you either. You have to disconnect completely. What a gift to have learned that at 27 also, let's just make that statement as well. So now you go to New York. You're studying under, I'm going to say studying even though you're working, but you're studying under a female founder.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yep.
James McKinney: How powerful was that for you to not have that context of female entrepreneurship if you will, at least my understanding based on the story you've told so far, that there wasn't that context for you until this moment when you're at, let me see if I get this right Casa Dragones?
Elizabeth Grojean: Yep.
James McKinney: Here you are working under a female founder. How powerful was that for you and what are, if you were to think back to that moment, what were some of the key things that you learned both personally and entrepreneurially that have helped you to where you are today?
Elizabeth Grojean: Yes. I learned so, so much being exposed to her desk and her team, and her unapologetic drive, and her commitment to her vision which sort of excluded anything personal, not in a positive or negative way but it wasn't personal to her. It wasn't personal to the team that was working on this mission. The vision was so clear that it was kind of like if you're not in line with this vision, there is no extra energy for anything really to drama, any ambiguity cleared up instantly. It was just such a pure environment I would say. That was so refreshing to me. It's what I'd been looking for. There was a lot of pressure at the same time, and there was a high toll because really the focus being so motivated and so focused on this outcome or this building of this brand and this vision could at times be a little bit dehumanizing, you know? There's not a lot of room for anything kind of soft and cuddly in that environment. But I really appreciated the no BS environment that was there too. It was all about performance.
James McKinney: Oh, I love it. Now why did you leave there?
Elizabeth Grojean: You know after a couple of years it was not my vision, and I think I felt like there was still a calling that I had which was to be of service of my own vision, and I was still looking for that. And to be honest in a support role as an executive assistant you get a lot of work put on you, and none of the glory.
James McKinney: That is true.
Elizabeth Grojean: And I think a part of me was like you know I just wanted to be a little bit part of the fun things that are happening, the art openings or the events and I was in the office.
James McKinney: So you're having this vision for yourself of what you want to accomplish, but again starting a business does tend to come from external influences. So now having been raised by your dad who had a business of his own, up to this point you probably had some other people around you that had started creating their own business, their own startup, their own side hustle. You're now at Casa Dragones working under a female founder so now you have a context for female entrepreneurship, which again I don't want to minimize because a lot of people don't have that context and it's incredibly powerful for you as well. And so who around you, if you were to reflect back in that moment, who around you was influencing you for the fact that you could create something of your own?
Elizabeth Grojean: You know I don't think I had it at that point. I was still very impressed and a little bit intimidated by the Casa de Dragones model because she was initially backed by the founder of MTV and the chairman of Clear Channel so she had a huge private venture backed cofounder basically, which wasn't something that I felt like when I looked around was in my social circle necessarily. So I didn't relate to her origin story. I learned a lot about what she did next there, but you know it wasn't until I just to get through the linear telling of the story I then worked at Scholastic as a marketing manager for four years, which was a nice job. But again it was very kind of corporate and I felt very unfulfilled. So it was actually at that point that I felt like a complete failure. After trying so many things, I think was 34 so I'd done so much different trials and testing up to this point, and I decided to go on a one way trip to Bali. It was kind of like an escape, you know. A little bit of savings-
James McKinney: All right, I want to pause on that when we get to Bali because again, 27 you know you had a lot of realizations about where value comes from.
Elizabeth Grojean: I actually didn't realize that until much later.
James McKinney: Until much later, okay, but there was some work to be done at 27. Now at 34 you're having that sense of failure again. I have to ask and only because your sister was at private school, and sometimes our siblings are our metrics. Was there some type of comparison with your sibling at Princeton and whatever she had done with her life? Where was this pressure coming from at 34 that you felt like a failure?
Elizabeth Grojean: It really was internal but yes I can look around and say I was still looking for validation through career at this point. She had been in her same corporate job for 15 years. She works at Simon & Schuster in sales and got slowly promoted. And I think my feeling was how come everyone else is content and I'm not content? What is it that's driving me? I don't really understand why I have this need to expect higher expectations from my work.
James McKinney: Yeah, yeah. Oh my goodness. And again for someone who is in the mix, for all my entrepreneurs listening right now I know they're probably processing all of this because when it comes to entrepreneurship that is one of the most dangerous things to do is to compare your success with another because you're going to end up running their race and missing everything that's important for what your mission is and what your brand is. So I can see all the benefits for all the work you've been doing to process all this out before you even start your business. You're working out all the things that are so important, so now I'm excited to hear about your one way ticket to Bali because that is… that's just ballsy.
James McKinney: All right. Before we continue on with this episode I hope you caught how valuable that was about not comparing your race to another. In fact, that is why I created The Startup Story so you could try to see the elements of the grind that is truly never visible. Now, that is also why I created Grindology, to provide a platform for providers to bring their proven tactics and strategies directly to you to help your journey. I mean how valuable would it be to have direct access to some of my past guests to learn exactly how they executed certain strategies to grow their business? I have to believe that would be extremely helpful to your entrepreneurial journey. As someone who has access to these founders I can tell you first hand it's incredibly helpful. And it is now available to you because that is the experience and knowledge sharing that is delivered to you each quarter when you become a Grindology member.
Grindology is an entrepreneurial subscription box that ships every quarter full of resources to help fuel your Grind and your hustle. Now you might be asking what's included in your Grindology shipment? Well, first and foremost every single Grindology shipment will include a copy of the Grindology tactical manual, and every single issue of Grindology will be chock full of real tactics from real business builders, not journalists. Within the pages of the Grindology tactical manual we will be delivering to you tactics and strategies you can integrate into your business immediately. How great would it be to receive real Facebook ad strategies from those who are doing it? Wouldn't it be helpful if a successful founder laid out specific user acquisition strategies that they use to grow their business? Well those are the types of tactics that will be found in each issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders.
And in addition to the Grindology tactical manual, each shipment delivers two bags of uniquely crafted coffee specifically roasted for you, the founder, the hustler, the entrepreneur, the maker and creator. Each shipment also includes an exclusive mug that speaks to the unique nature that is you, the entrepreneur. And everything about Grindology is about helping to fuel your grind. In fact, that is exactly why our friends at Design Pickle have partnered with us for our first box. Yep, our homies at Design Pickle are hooking up one lucky subscriber with a full year of unlimited graphic design services. That is a prize worth close to $12,000. Like I said, everything I do is about helping you and your entrepreneurial journey. So visit grindology.com to learn more. Our Q1 box and the chance to win the Design Pickle package valued at close to $12,000 is an exclusive shipment, so make sure to secure your box today at grindology.com. We'll include a link to grindology.com within our show notes for easy access. Now let's jump back into our episode with Elizabeth Grojean, the founder of Baloo Living.
James McKinney: Now I'm excited to hear about your one way ticket to Bali because that is… that's just ballsy. One way ticket somewhere. Again, you talk about at 27 having lived in various states and coming back. Most people don't get that opportunity. You did some study abroad in Mexico I think you said. Not everyone has that opportunity. And now you had a one way ticket to Bali. Most people are never going to do that. So again, you've done so many things that some people probably want to do that haven't done, and so let's talk about your one way trip to Bali. What drove it? What were you hoping from it? And let's talk about what happened there.
Elizabeth Grojean: I had a strong sense within me that I needed to change my environment, that there was some kind of rut that I was in. In terms of how I was seeing things and my perspective wasn't going to be able to shift until I could put myself in a new environment. At the same time, I had limited funds. I had a little bit of savings, not a lot. New York is not the kind of place where you can sit around and ponder life. So okay, you build a short list of places that are pleasant to be in, have a nice community, and also really great cost of living. Bali is definitely on that list.
James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. So you get there. What is the… I mean what were you hoping from that season? Were you really planning on just relocating your life to Bali or was this temporary even though it was a one way ticket?
Elizabeth Grojean: No, this was temporary. This was kind of like giving myself permission to go take a break for as long as I need to, and Bali specifically I'd been hearing a lot of things just interesting he media and blogs or TED Talks had been popping up talking about the aspect of Bali's culture that somehow inspires creativity. And I felt like creativity was sort of what I was missing in my approach to my decision making about my job.
James McKinney: Okay. Interesting.
Elizabeth Grojean: So that was what I was really looking for was a reset, some creativity, some space to breathe from the financial pressure of the city. And also I think it's really hard to make a decision about what to do next if you feel a little worried about money. That adds like extra pressure.
James McKinney: Yes it does.
Elizabeth Grojean: So it wasn't a very difficult decision to make because again I felt like how come everyone else doesn't feel like they have to go on a one way trip to get to Bali and I do? I don't know what's wrong with me. But once I got there I realized there's a lot of people doing the same thing, and it's a super supportive community of people that even just being in the east, getting a break from the western point of view is refreshing.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness, I love it. So how long were you in Bali for?
Elizabeth Grojean: Okay, so I was there for three months. This is where I had the epiphany oh my gosh, my value isn't derived from what I do or my title. And I will say I cannot overstate what a challenging process it was to go through to recognize that, and to let that go because it was so uncomfortable being there and meeting people, and not being able to say, "This is what I do," or say, "I'm a student," or have any kind of shield to protect me to hide behind as like my calling card to the world basically. I'm Elizabeth and I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't know how long I'm here for. And that's it.
James McKinney: Wow.
Elizabeth Grojean: And no one else cares, you know? But I did.
James McKinney: Yeah. Oh my goodness, I love that. Again, it is so powerful because… It's funny, I've had this conversation with numerous people. When you ask most people like what do you do, it's oh I run a business or this and that, or I'm a dad of two, mom of two, whatever the case may be. There's something that we are, that's the first thing out of our mouth and that tends to be what the priority is, where we think our value statement is from. So I love the fact that you didn't have anything to base it on. But I want to ask, because there's some things that have kind of stuck out, are you a perfectionist by chance?
Elizabeth Grojean: Yes.
James McKinney: Ah, okay, okay. Again, I am, let's be very clearly I think my audience knows this, this is our first time meeting. I am not a shrink in any way shape or form, there's just certain patterns you can see from where people kind of again get their intrinsic value from, the things that they wrestle with, the things that become complicated for. And again I've had numerous guests on here, including Randi Zuckerberg. Perfectionism is a bondage. It is, again so many people wave this perfectionist flag like it is a merit bad, like it is look how great I am, look how wonderful this is, I'm so trustworthy, you know I'm going to do it perfectly right. And it's like oh my gosh, what it all tells me is that it's going to take you a long time to get it done because you are just going to weigh on this forever. So thank you for answering that. I kind of sensed that was probably the case but I wasn't completely sure in that. So you have this realization that your value is not external, based on external circumstances. Was it there that you said I know what I want to do, what I want my business to be? Or did you come home and there was something else at that point?
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. So it was a process. I did end up coming home after three months. I was feeling so happy and just like I found everything I was looking for. Came back to New York thinking great, you know I'm going to restart and get another job, and-
James McKinney: Wait, so you went back to New York, you didn't go to Texas?
Elizabeth Grojean: No, I went back to New York where I'd been living, and that's where I got very strong reverse culture shock. This was my greatest moment of courage actually was coming back, feeling like I thought I found it, oops I lost it. Now I don't have any money, I don't have a job, and I have to either make a decision to go get a job so I can pay rent on my apartment or go back to Bali which is the unknown. I have no idea like what the next steps would be, but I know that it feels good, and I know that there's people there living life in a way which is how I want to live my life. And I made a conscious decision to trust myself and to actually trust my body, the instincts I felt were telling me very loudly that didn't really make sense to me in a practical sense, but that I was learning to trust more, to go back to the place that felt so good to me, and trust that I would find out what I would need to find out whenever I was ready.
James McKinney: And where was that place?
Elizabeth Grojean: So I went back to Bali, yes.
James McKinney: There you go.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah, and exactly what happened, I didn't have much money but I got a contract job remotely working for my last employer so I had some income to sustain me. Not a lot, but all you need for being there. And I took an online course about how to sell… Okay, so at this point the circumstances helping me making decisions and I think I'm grateful that I didn't come with a trust fund for example because if I hadn't needed money I wouldn't have started a company. But I needed a business that would support a lifestyle that I now knew that I really wanted. And so I dove into ecommerce. I looked around, there were a few things I considered, but ecommerce looked to me like the path forward. So I chose it.
James McKinney: What was it about ecommerce that you thought… because again, most people and maybe you did, and maybe you're just telling the narrative a little out of line, but most people are like I have a product, I have a service, I have some type of solution and then ecommerce is merely the platform in which we go about making the transaction. Was that the case for you, or at first you were like no, ecommerce is my solution, now I've got to figure out what to sell?
Elizabeth Grojean: That was it exactly.
James McKinney: Oh, okay.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. Yep. I did a little cost/benefit analysis there. I had a few ideas that were internet based, but only one of them was a product based business. After breaking down how much the cost/benefit or the potential ROI on these different models, ecommerce looked like the best path.
James McKinney: Okay. And then how long until you found a product that you wanted? Again, we're now on the front welcome mat of what is Baloo Living. We're almost about to open the door to walk into the home of Baloo Living, but we're not there yet. So what was the step? When you said ecommerce for sure, how did you get to Baloo Living?
Elizabeth Grojean: Okay. So it's a pretty romantic story except for this part, which is just strictly researching keyword volume, starting with Amazon. So lots of days looking at spreadsheets of data to find and identify trends for spikes in keyword searches. And then looking at the competitors in that keyword niche to see if there's an opportunity to compete with those products. When I discovered weighted blankets it was definitely early days. It was 2017 so weighted blankets have 5X, 10X in volume since then. But I could see that this was going to be big, and I looked at the marketplace and I really didn't see anything appealing to me as a customer. So that's when I got really excited.
James McKinney: That's awesome. Everything you just mentioned with keyword strength and the search volume, and trying to see what trend was coming up, what a powerful ability or powerful process you went through in order to find out what it is you want to do. And I think many people would probably love to understand that more as they're trying to figure out I know ecommerce is where I want to be, I know whether it be a side hustle, whatever the case may be they're like I want to sell something online. How can someone go through that same process? Can you break down the process you went through to get you to weighted blankets?
Elizabeth Grojean: Okay. So I started by using Amazon. Since they're such a major searching engine for products with intent to buy in the US market. There's different tools that you can use to pull down data on searches that are happening on Amazon. The one I used is called Jungle Scout. And you can run reports based on certain criteria. You can set a dollar min or max. you can set criteria to filter out for low review count, high review count, and basically export this data into spreadsheets. So I spent several days just looking over spreadsheets, analyzing the number of searches by keyword that were taking place on Amazon's platform. So it's not just finding a product where there's a lot of keyword searches. You could have 4 million people a week looking for a spatula. But if you go to Amazon and you look at what results show up if I type in spatula you'll find that's a super saturated niche on Amazon. You could launch a spatula but you might be buried in page 84 and so that's not a good opportunity. But what I noticed was that keyword searches for weighted blankets were pretty high relative to the number of products that were being sold on Amazon for that search term.
And another thing that was really important to me was to find a product that had some element of aesthetics that mattered to it, because I knew that I wasn't going to be the hacker that's going to get us onto spot one, two, or three on Amazon. I didn't want to sell a commodity product, I wanted to create a brand. And I wanted the look and feel of the product to matter because if you're choosing something for your home like a lamp or a blanket, for example, you're definitely going to put the time in to scroll through page one. You might go to page two or page three, and then you're going to connect with that customer visually there so you don't have to compete for those top spots. So that was the simple route that I took to identify this opportunity just based on the keyword volume and then the competitors that were existing there.
Another neat thing about this tool is that you can also get an estimate for revenue by product on Amazon by month. So I could easily see okay, the top 10 sellers here are grossing $200-400,000 a month in revenue, and if I think that I'm going to come in and compete with them, if I want to take say 10% of one of these brands sales would that be enough for me? Yeah, if I could do $20,000 in sales a month on this keyword I would consider that a huge success for what I was looking for. So that's how I found the product initially.
James McKinney: I love it. Here you are, you discover that weighted blankets is something that you want to get into now. Again, there's so many steps. We're not going to talk sourcing, we're not going to talk anything about other than just how did you say, "Okay, weighted blankets is it." Now how do I get to market? How do you connect… one are you still in Bali at this point? Let's just talk about that.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah definitely still in Bali. I ended up staying there for about a year.
James McKinney: Okay, so you're still-
Elizabeth Grojean: So I launched everything from there.
James McKinney: Really? Oh that's awesome. So from Bali, so again Bali an island, so obviously you definitely had manufacturers elsewhere. What did you know about brand building? Because you said you wanted to build a brand, not a product. Again, we won't go into the sourcing of the product, that's irrelevant, but now you're talking about building a brand. What did you know about brand building in order to do this?
Elizabeth Grojean: Well this is where I think all of the experiments I've had up until this point were so useful because I had a marketing degree, I worked in advertising, I worked in communications on the Hill, and then I worked in startup brand building at the tequila company so I'd seen different business models and different aspects to marketing. And I know that it starts with ecommerce. It starts with visuals because a picture is worth a thousand words. So you've got to have a visual that speaks clearly and communicates your brand to someone subconsciously. It's not a features and benefits and photographic. It's going to be a lifestyle photo that conveys a feeling to someone. And I would also back up a bit by saying that once I did a try a weighted blanket it was almost a religious experience for me. I was so in love with the way it felt that it felt like I couldn't believe I was so lucky to see a financial opportunity that I also felt connected to on a very personal level.
So the brand for me was not an exercise of okay let's whiteboard who is our avatar, et cetera. It was flowing through me. At this point I kind of feel like I found my calling, and the brand itself was not something I had to work to build. I just felt like I embodied it. So the question was how do we express this to other people so it gets communicated in all the channels and all the ways. So definitely first photography. Fortunately I was on this beautiful island with everyone is either an Instagram model or a photographer basically.
James McKinney: I love it, I love it.
Elizabeth Grojean: So the consecration aspect was easy and we still do our photo shoots in Bali. You can't beat it.
James McKinney: You're just looking for a reason to go back, that's all that is at that point.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. Once COVID is over I am back there. And I hired a PR agency right away because I had seen that be such an important part of what Casa Dragones did. They worked with two PR agencies. One was specializing in the contemporary art market and then one was in the food and chefs, high end restaurants. So they were spending a lot of money on PR in that part of their brand building. I also knew there's different ways you can do PR. You can do it yourself, you can hire a VA. They're all like time and labor intensive, and I could tell realistically I'm not going to have time to do that so I ended up hiring a PR agency who gave me a special audition to start for like Christmas catalogs. I could see that they had some long leads so we signed on and we've been with the same PR agency for three years now.
They just consistently deliver. It's all online. It's links, but it's great for a CO and we're pretty much everywhere on the internet because we've been doing it for so long. Every listicle, every review site includes our brand.
James McKinney: That's incredible. There's so many things I want to unpack so let's make sure that we definitely talk about the value of PR because there are many articles out there that talk about why startups don't need PR. So I want to make sure we talk about that. But I also want to make sure that we talk about the capitalization of it because PR agencies aren't cheap, so I want to make sure we cover that. I know my audience will be curious about that as well. But at the same time, what I want to talk about is the religious experience you had with the weighted blanket. Without going into too much detail because this is not a science podcast, but I know that there probably are some health benefits and that must be the religious experience you had with the weighted blanket. Can you talk about why a weighted blanket is so much more than just a heavy blanket?
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah. Well actually it is like a heavy blanket. Ours is unique in that it's super breathable because people have this association that blankets are for the winter or a heavy blanket means it's hot. And as soon as I tried one I realized this is something for self care, this is a sleep tool. It's not a seasonal warmth blanket, it's something you want to use all year long. So we use our weight as coming from glass microbeads and we use purely cotton in the blanket, whereas all other brands are using polyester batting. But that makes ours super breathable. And the science behind them is it's really been extensively studied through deep pressure touch which is the mechanism that they work through, which is the same thing that is when you get a massage or a hug, or when you think of a baby being swaddled to calm them down. Our bodies work the same way. And so when you put on these weighted blankets that are anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds, you pick the one that is right for you, the body has an automatic response that you can't control. It's the decrease of cortisol, the stress hormone, and then there's an increase of serotonin which is the feel good hormone, the relaxation hormone, that's happening biochemically in your body. So it's really a surprising feeling if you've never felt it before to put this on, and then your body starts doing something and you're like what's happening?
James McKinney: I'm super curious now to try a 25 pounder. As soon as you mentioned the two weights, I'm like why wouldn't you just go 25 pounds?
Elizabeth Grojean: I like the heavy one, yeah.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness. So you have this idea. You now know what you want to create. You know the brand look you want to go with. You know all the things and how do you capitalize it? How do you fund this?
Elizabeth Grojean: So I didn't really realize that cash flow was going to be a question. So step by step, right? So first I found the product and I'm like cool, first challenge done. Next challenge, order product. I didn't have any money. So actually what happened was my dad offered to loan me a little bit of money. At this point my family is still worried about me. They think I'm off on an island, I've left traditional life behind. They're like what is ecommerce? Don't get it. Yeah, we don't know what you're doing. But he's my dad and he loves me, so he offered to loan me money. And I said no dad, I don't need your money, I'm going to do this by myself. Yeah, I'll find money my own way. And then fast forward a week or two, and I was like well it sounds easy but who do I ask? And then I ended up having a session with a healer who does energy work there, and in that session I had a vision of my dad coming to me. I always cry when I tell the story.
James McKinney: That's all right, that's all right.
Elizabeth Grojean: I could feel his offering was a pure love offering. It had no strings attached. And that by accepting it I would be accepting his love.
James McKinney: I love it. No, and I love how vulnerable you're being with this because I think there's so many hang-ups people have about family fundraising. Again, it was an offer from him. It wasn't like you put together a pitch deck for him. It was an offer from him and so it's a validating point as well when those closest to you want to be a part of what you're doing because they believe in you. That's what it is. Maybe your dad believed in weighted blankets, I have no idea, but I definitely know he believed in you. So that's what it was about. And I think for all the listeners out there that have an idea, that think that they have to go venture or whatever the case may be, just start with those closest. I mean yes, there's ways to bootstrap a lot of things. Let's just be very clear about that as well. But if you need to figure out a funding source, don't be so reluctant with friends and family. Again, the first one, the ones closest to you are the ones that are going to give you the honest feedback also, so I love the validation your dad gave you by wanting to be a part of it early on. But nevertheless, again there was a limit to that capital regardless.
Let's talk about the PR agency side of things. PR agencies aren't cheap and again, you start with a PR agency out the get go and there are articles on top of articles from highly successful entrepreneurs, most of them in technology, but nevertheless they all say a startup is wasting their money hiring a PR firm early on. Let's unpack that because you disagree obviously. You had massive success with a PR agency. What are your thoughts on the notion that startups don't need to leverage PR?
Elizabeth Grojean: I do think it depends on your business. But I think one misconception people often have around PR is that it's a sales channel or sales pipeline and we don't relate to it that way at all. What it has done for us is open gates and open doors, and build brand awareness. But again my strategy with launching weighted blankets in the first place was not to create a new product. I think often like software, SAS companies are up and the challenge that they're actually creating something new, and they have to communicate so much to their customer whereas with our product we were providing an alternative to something that people were already looking for. So in our sense I think it made a lot of sense because people are out there looking for weighted blankets. We wanted help to be able to be put interesting he right place at the right time so that we'd show up in their search.
James McKinney: Now most people listening might say well yeah, that's what Facebook ads is for. I assume, and correct me if I'm wrong, but you've probably done some type of cost per acquisition analysis on here's what we spend on PR, here's the channels that those have developed in revenue. If you were to look at your cost per acquisition would you say it's in line with what most people can do through Facebook ads?
Elizabeth Grojean: It's a very hard comparison. We do this about once every six or 12 months. I start to get antsy on this retainer that we pay. We try to break it down and it's again you just can't look at it in a silo because we use that PR in all of our other channels. So we're using it as validation in email. We're using that in our paid ads. A lot of our highest performing ads are testimonials from magazines, so we use that as sort of just apply it as general marketing overhead, but it amplifies things for us.
James McKinney: Interesting. That's enough on the PR topic because I feel like I could just keep bantering back and forth. I've had some successes with PR, I've had some challenges with PR. Overall, I see value in it, it's just at what stage in the startup journey does it make sense. And again I guess for a product like weighted blankets there's probably a lot of validity to an agency right out the gate, especially if they have the relationships that kind of get you those placements if you will. But when you started, your search started with Amazon. Yet you built an ecommerce brand, so was your very first channel Amazon or did you start direct to consumer first and then you went to Amazon?
Elizabeth Grojean: We launched through Amazon. Always had a Shopify website and we'd see one or two sales a week pop up there. I don't know how they found us. And then it was actually through PR that we had our first big boom which was a press coverage by The Strategist featuring us as the best weighted blanket to give for the holidays. So our inventory had literally that way arrived into our own warehouse for the first time because up until that day all of our inventory had been at Amazon's warehouses. That piece of press landed November 28th. We sold out of everything for the entire holiday season within two days.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness.
Elizabeth Grojean: 95% of those sales were through our website.
James McKinney: Wow. That's incredible. I love hearing success stories like that. I love hearing those moments where you're just like crap I wish I had more inventory.
Elizabeth Grojean: Oh God. That to this day that was the hardest time in this whole entire journey.
James McKinney: What was hard about it?
Elizabeth Grojean: Well the warehouse was a brand new warehouse. This was the first time that they'd really started fulfilling orders, and there were a lot of late orders. I didn't have a customer service platform yet so I was personally emailing. We started… it was just, yeah. Just the sheer burden. I had someone come to my door and ring the doorbell because they wanted a blanket and they were out of stock on the website, and they looked me up. They found our business address which was my apartment, and came to my door.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness.
Elizabeth Grojean: It was like the gift of the holidays, and we're a one person company. It was just me.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness. That's amazing! I will say too what a testimonial to your PR agency. Unbelievable, unbelievable.
Elizabeth Grojean: Yeah.
James McKinney: So let's talk about the Amazon journey that you had a bit, because Amazon for those that don't know there's so many different economies behind Amazon. Amazon is so much more than just the marketplace we see. There's so many things to Amazon that most people are completely unaware of. There are trade shows specifically for those who only sell on Amazon. That's how crazy the economies of Amazon are. For you did you think Amazon was a "if I just put a product out there sales are going to happen"? And then what was your Amazon journey like for you?
Elizabeth Grojean: So that's what happened for us just because of choosing the right product at the right time with the right photography. We were able to sell out of our first production run on Amazon with no advertising and no optimization really to be honest. There just wasn't that much competition and there was that much search volume. You couldn't say that today for weighted blankets. It's a completely competitive niche. There's an Amazon's Basics option, for example. But I always knew that I didn't want to be an Amazon dependent company. It was just I think it's a great way to launch a new product because they bring the traffic to you. But it's not a place that you can build a strong foundation because you're going to always, you can say you can rent space on Amazon or you can buy your own land and build your own business off Amazon. So at any time they could terminate that lease and you lose everything.
So our approach to Amazon now, as soon as we were fortunate enough to have the press that helped us get that recognition off Amazon, we don't really put any resources to Amazon. That's a distribution channel for us because you have the Prime customer that's more comfortable clicking checkout on Amazon. But our entire business focuses on off Amazon.
James McKinney: Are you in brick and mortar retail, or just your website?
Elizabeth Grojean: We're not in brick and mortar. We've got several drop ship. We're carried with Nordstrom, The Grommet, Verishop, a few other like high end online stores.
James McKinney: Do you want to be in brick and mortar? Is that part of your strategy or do you want to stay with the models you have now, the channels you have now?
Elizabeth Grojean: I'm very interested in product discovery through brick and mortar because this is such an experiential product, but we're still such a small team I don't have the bandwidth to develop in person experiences for the product yet.
James McKinney: So three years in, had some tremendous success. If you were to look back on the three years, and let's say someone was having coffee with you in Bali. Let's just place it where your most favorite place is in Bali. Someone's having coffee with you in Bali and they're wanting to start an ecommerce brand. Regardless of what the product is, what are some of your most significant learnings along this journey that you would share with this person?
Elizabeth Grojean: I would say start small and test. I think it's a great time to start an ecommerce business. I think that there's a lot of maturing happen in the next maybe 12, 18, or 24 months in ecommerce with direct to consumer. But it's a wonderful place to start a small business and there's just a lot of opportunity there. So I would start by… oh gosh, there's just so many little things.
James McKinney: Well let's talk about your own personal journey though. What are some of the things that you learned that you would share with this person? Not even at a theoretical level. Actual practical lessons you learned.
Elizabeth Grojean: Having a story, something that you stand for behind your brand is really important, I think. Otherwise, you're just a commodity website and you're competing with Amazon, and you'll never win that competition. So you have to communicate a value or a story or something for people to connect with through your product. We know that millennials and younger generations are doing more online shopping. They're also really savvy. They also care about the responsibility of a product or brand that they're supporting. Research shows that it's more important to younger generations than older that they choose to shop with a responsible company. So we do give backs. We do offset our carbon. We pay our carbon footprint forward with a nonprofit partnership. We work with an organization called Pajama Program to give children reassuring bedtime routines.
And I think it's important to have either a personal story that you can communicate through your website or your product, or some kind of give back incorporated in what you're creating and setting up. I think visuals are extremely important in ecommerce, going back to that photography conversation. Taking an ecommerce image of a product on a white background doesn't communicate anything in terms of feelings to a person, so create something that's going to help that person visualize themselves using that product in their life. And don't just think about your customer avatar who you think that your customer is. Think about who does that customer aspire to be, and help them see that in their life through your product.
James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. You know I want to honor my listener's time and make sure that we cover our final three questions that we always ask. This time has been so rich, Elizabeth. Absolutely rich and I'm so appreciative of you spending the time with us. But the first of those three questions that my listeners look forward to, and I know they look forward to it because they hit me up every time on social media when it comes out. And that first one has to do with just the general idea of entrepreneurship. The mass media portrays entrepreneurship a certain way where there are certain personas that are kind of excluded from it. Maybe it's the 50 year old who thinks they're just a little too old to launch a business, or maybe it's the business student who thinks that they have to have a venture backing in order to do it and they just don't know, they don't have the network for it. Whatever the case may be. Do you believe anybody can be an entrepreneur? Or is this more of a genetic thing?
Elizabeth Grojean: I think anybody can, and I think a really important part of what makes that possible is having people around you that inspire you and support you, and help lead you. Because none of us know everything. We're always learning. And I always had the belief that people who started businesses had to kind of do it on their own, and realized as soon as I jumped in and made a commitment how many people were there to help and support. There's nothing that entrepreneurs love more than helping other people who are entrepreneurs.
James McKinney: You are preaching my gospel, Elizabeth. I say it all the time, entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs because we know how hard it is, and that leads me to my second question. And to your point, we don't do this alone but the media portrays that it's just us and our laptop on our friend's couch surfing, and it's just pounding away at code or launching websites on our own and we're in this isolated vacuum until something strikes big. And we know that's not true. We're surrounded by people. So when you look back across your entrepreneurial journey to where you are today, who are the people that you look to with such immense gratitude for where you are today?
Elizabeth Grojean: Oh there's so many people. One of them is this woman Mona who was an ecommerce store owner and she was a human rights lawyer first, and then she started an Amazon brand. And I thought if she can be committed to human rights and do ecommerce, I can too.
James McKinney: I love it.
Elizabeth Grojean: Another, there's so many people in Bali that sat down with me when I got stuck over small things, figuring it out in the beginning and just gave me advice. I'm a member of… well, I have to say my dad for believing me and giving me the financial backing. For Christmas this year I gave him a check for the full amount of his loan repayment and that was really fun.
James McKinney: That's awesome. That is awesome. And again it's, I'm so appreciative of you speaking something and validating what I've been saying for so long that we don't do this alone. If you do do it alone, you are going to hit burn out so fast and your percentage of failure is so much higher by trying to do it alone. You're going to just break yourself. So I'm so thankful for you sharing how surrounded you were and why you're seeing the success you are today.
And so our last question is, is that opportunity for you to have coffee with one of my listeners. Maybe it's the frustrated entrepreneur, the one who continues to try and build something but cash flow is always a problem. They're never quite sure where payroll is coming from. It's just challenge after challenge after challenge, and they never feel like they're truly getting ahead. Or maybe it's the wantrepreneur who someone has got a book full of dreams and ideas and isn't quite sure how to move forward, or maybe they believe the narrative out there that because they're 50 or 60 they're too old to move forward on it. Or maybe it's the defeated entrepreneur that because of 2020 events, COVID, they lost everything and they aren't quite sure if they can get back on the horse again and try to rebuild something all over again. Whatever that persona is that resonates with you, and maybe all three resonate with you because of where you've been in your life, whatever that is if you were having coffee with one of my listeners, as much as I would love to afford all 85,000 listeners a chance to sit with you individually, it's unreasonable. But if you were to have coffee with one of them what persona resonates with you the most and what would you say to that person as your last words here with The Startup Story?
Elizabeth Grojean: So if you are that person that has an idea that wants to be an entrepreneur, my biggest piece of advice is to take a small step forward every day. Just take action because we're so inspired and motivated by our own progress. It doesn't matter if you achieve the goal, but if you're making a little bit of progress every day you will very quickly start to gain momentum, and you're going to start attracting things to you from the universe that you couldn't have expected would come your way. And things will start to unfold in ways that you could never have imagined. Usually if you are open to things coming in, it's always going to be better than you could have imagined if you had control over the situation. So just take action, but it could be the smallest action.
James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value that Elizabeth Grojean brought us in this week's episode please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. In fact, I hope you will show up for Elizabeth and visit BalooLiving.com and buy something as a show of appreciation for all the value she delivered to you today. For crying out loud, she walked you through how to determine a product category to enter based on real time Amazon data. You know that's deserving of a quick purchase at BalooLiving.com just as a way of saying thank you. You know, if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So let's show up for Elizabeth Grojean in a huge way by visiting BalooLiving.com as a show of appreciation for all the value she delivered to us. In fact, if you're an overachiever then share the URL on your social platforms for others to discover her. You know just as well as I do awareness is everything to a startup. And now for my personal ask.
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