Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi Starter Story!
My name is Jamie Skinner and I am one of the co-founders of Jungle Culture. We are an e-commerce brand that sources eco-friendly products directly from farms, small craft workshops, and ethical factories and sells them online worldwide.
My business partner Chris and I started Jungle Culture in 2018 with one product, bamboo straws. Back then our brand name was Jungle Straws and our goal was to create a business that would fund our traveler lifestyles and also create positive change in the world.
After less than a year Jungle Straws became one of the world’s biggest bamboo straw companies and our clients included National Geographic, the US parks department, and TOMS.
Propelled by our success and the desire to create more change, we switched our focus to eco-friendly products as a whole and created Jungle Culture, which this year turned over just over $1,000,000.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Before starting Jungle Culture I worked in an investment bank in central London. I sat in a dark corner, with a blank wall in front of me. I was 25 at the time and to my left sat a 35-year-old who had worked at the bank for 15 years and was just getting ready to purchase his first home. Further to the left was my manager, a 55-year-old who had spent his entire career in banking. He had just purchased a retirement property in France, had 2 kids, and was preparing to give up banking and live off of his investments.
If I had to give one piece of advice to anyone starting an online business it would be… Bootstrap, bootstrap, bootstrap!
Sitting in that dark corner, looking to my left, I could see my future, secure, but drab and boring. I decided that what I craved wasn’t security, it was adventure, achievement, and freedom and once my 2-year contract ran out I took the first available flight to Mexico. I had around 10,000 British pounds in my bank and I knew that I could live comfortably in Mexico with that money for at least 6 months while I thought of an idea that would ideally allow me to travel, work and save.
I ended up in a small town, North of Mexico City, called San Miguel de Allende. I checked into a cheap hostel and in the courtyard, there was another British guy, who I found out from one of the other guests had also quit his job as an electrician to pursue working online. It transpired that the guy sitting in the hostel courtyard would eventually become my business partner!
After meeting Chris in San Miguel I had a family emergency and returned to the UK for 8 months, but we talked via Whatsapp and decided that we both wanted to start an eCommerce business. We had no idea which product to choose and little to no experience selling online, but I had recently seen an article on the BBC that detailed the damage that plastic straws were doing to our oceans and we decided that this was our niche!
At the time we didn’t have a lot of money and we were nervous about investing our savings into a business that we knew nothing about, so reusable straws seemed like a good bet. They’re small, lightweight, and cheap, so we could learn about e-commerce without spending too much money. Chris was in Vietnam at the time and he had seen bamboo straws used at local restaurants. He visited several bamboo farms and eventually, we found an ethical supplier and bought our first round of products. We spent roughly $1,500USD to purchase 500 sets and Chris built our first website without spending a dime. We had no idea if the product would work and we did little to no actual research. We just liked using them and felt they were a good solution to an environmental problem.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When we designed our first product, we purchased the market-leading bamboo straws on several different platforms, tested them, assessed the problems, and then read customer reviews to see what people liked and disliked. We then tried to create a better product at a cheaper cost. Once we had an idea in mind of what we wanted the product to look like, we contacted our farm partners to create samples and Chris visited the farm one last time to film the production for our social media channels.
The farm owner showing us how to shape bamboo
We made a lot of mistakes when we were manufacturing our first product.
- We wanted to be “package-free” so we didn’t have anywhere to stick a barcode
- We had no idea how to ship 500 bags of bamboo straws from Vietnam to the UK, so we used an obscenely expensive service
- We launched our product on Amazon and because we didn’t follow their guidelines, Amazon placed our plastic-free reusable straws in poly bags for shipping. Nightmare.
Starting a business gives you incredible highs and some awful lows. Personally, I think that keeping a good diet, good sleep, and a good exercise routine are the best ways to stay on track.
At the time these mistakes felt like they would destroy our business before we had even got started, but we sold through our first 500 units at a small loss, proved that the business could work, and bought 1,000 more units after learning a few tough lessons!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our launch strategy was to gain brand awareness and sales on Amazon and build our wholesale and website business in the background. Our Amazon sales kicked in almost immediately and within 2 months our product was the highest-ranked bamboo straw set in the UK. To gain wholesale customers we optimized our website for SEO and sent cold emails out to plastic-free stores around the UK. The strategy worked well because at the time bamboo straws were a very niche product (still are) and it wasn’t difficult to rank highly on Google or find customers because we were one of the only brands out there.
Aside from the first 500 units, we were profitable from the very beginning and we have always focused on profitability in everything that we do. The maximum that Chris and I had invested in the business was $10,000 to fund our expansion into different product ranges, but we paid this money back within the first 6 months and since then Jungle Culture has grown without the need for outside investment, loans or crowdfunding.
Chris having a mental breakdown after weeks of working from 7 am to 1 am
If I had to give one piece of advice to anyone starting an online business it would be… Bootstrap, bootstrap, bootstrap!
In the beginning, everything was done by me or Chris. We built websites, handled SEO, created wholesale brochures, designed our products, ran our ads, answered customers, and everything in between! If we can do it, then you can too!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
How to retain and attract new customers:
Always put your customers in front of profit. If a customer has a bad experience, do anything that you can to make it right, every single time. Here is a list of things that we regularly do to show customers that we care:
- Engrave free products with their names when we have time
- Handwrite thank you cards
- Give away freebies with big orders
- Feature their photos on our social media accounts
- Respond to every single negative review to try to win back the customer
The reason that these things work well when trying to retain and attract new customers is that most companies are laser-focused on increasing sales and optimizing their business, so when a customer receives a free personalized straw set with their order, they are completely blown away. Show customers that you care and they will be walking affiliates. They’ll advertise for you, model your products to their followings and be more likely to repeat buy.
How we grew our sales and traffic:
Our marketing dollars and minutes have been focused on the following areas:
1. Amazon and Etsy ads
Our strategy from the beginning was to focus our ad spend on buying platforms, rank our products and generate organic sales thereafter. To date, we haven’t spent more than $100 on social media ads, although this is an area that we will be pursuing this year.
Using third-party platforms such as Amazon and Etsy has worked well for us, but only because we buy directly from farms and not resellers on Alibaba.com. This allows us to compete on price with Chinese resellers to fend off competition.
2. Wholesale campaigns and third-party websites
We have built a successful wholesale business using a cold email strategy. We write most emails individually and genuinely and we only email shops and stores that we really admire. We write 3 emails a day and our success rate is a lot higher than just sending out blanket template emails. We also use third-party platforms such as Faire.com in the US to drive in some extra clients.
3. SEO optimization
Continual improvement in SEO since our business’s inception has helped drive sales and traffic on our website. We have learned everything ourselves, made lots of mistakes, but despite this our web traffic has been slowly growing month on month. SEO is definitely a long term investment, but it is the backbone of a sustainable online business and I would recommend e-commerce entrepreneurs to learn more about it and invest in SEO from the start.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The future's looking good! There are going to be huge challenges for us this year because of the pandemic, Brexit and we are also entering the US market in a bigger way. As I mentioned above, we’ve been profitable, almost from day 1 and after a great Christmas season we have built up a big chunk of investment to pump into 2021!
We moved into our first warehouse/office in September and we’ll be bringing in a range of new products at the start of February which will be released across Europe to start and in the US later in the year. Our short-term goals are to mimic our European business in the US market and long term we want to be the number 1 online store worldwide for plastic-free products.
Some specifics: Our cost of goods varies from product to product, but we always make sure that a product cost is no more than 25% of what we plan to sell for eventually. This gives us room to wholesale the product and offer our clients a good deal.
Our ad spend varies from product to product and platform to platform too, but roughly speaking, we spend around 10-25% to generate a sale through ads.
We have only had 2 full accounting years and in our first year we generated revenues of around $380,000, so our business has nearly tripled in size this year.
Email subscribers = 1,200 and Instagram followers on two accounts combined = 18,000
Our sales are broken down to roughly 40% wholesale, 40% Amazon, and 20% everything else.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
What we have learned from starting Jungle Culture is to go where others don’t. When we first started researching building an e-commerce business, we watched countless Youtube videos telling us to rebrand Chinese factory-made products from Alibaba. We ignored that advice and sourced products that were a little bit different, a little bit unique, and not only have our customers resonated with them, but it’s also made for a hell of a better journey!
The greatest skill you can have as an entrepreneur is your work ethic. Don’t be lazy! Get up early, start work early and finish work late. Work 7 days a week and always be eager to learn. If you do that, you’ll eventually succeed, this idea or the next.
Other than that, here’s a few great tools that I use almost every day:
- Transferwise (international banking made easy)
- Canva (graphic design for novices)
- Trello (organization - simple and visual)
- SEMrush (SEO - cheap and includes lessons)
Except for Google, Facebook, and a few other key apps, we try not to use Shopify apps as too many apps can affect your site speed. If you need an app, make sure it’s worth it!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Starting a business gives you incredible highs and some awful lows. There will be times when you lose faith in your business, in yourself and the world. Just dust yourself off and go again, and again, and again.
Personally, I think that keeping a good diet, good sleep, and a good exercise routine are the best ways to stay on track.
When I feel drained and unmotivated, I normally watch a few youtube videos of successful entrepreneurs, sports stars, and leaders. That generally seems to give me a boost.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
If you’re thinking about starting a business, stop right now. Stop thinking and start doing. The biggest mistake I see is people asking me how to start an online business and never moving beyond talking.
Make a game plan and execute it. If you want to start an eCommerce store, take actionable steps every single day. Don’t be scared of failure, be scared of inaction.
If you find yourself back and forth between a host of different options, that’s paralysis by analysis… Pick one and move on. If you make a bad choice, you can always pivot later. We named our initial business Jungle Straws and had to build a whole new website when we decided to sell something other than straws, but at least we got started.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for great PR and social media pros. Get in touch via our website and be sure to send examples of your success stories. We are only hiring freelancers at this time.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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