How We Started A $120K/Month Streetwear And Skate Gear Shop

Published: April 30th, 2020
Trent and Matt
Founder, Empire Skate
Empire Skate
from Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
started November 2003
market size
avg revenue (monthly)
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
270 days
average product price
growth channels
Advertising on social media
business model
best tools
Instagram, Shopify, Notepad++
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
24 Pros & Cons
6 Tips
Discover what tools Trent recommends to grow your business!
social media
Discover what books Trent recommends to grow your business!
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi! I’m Matt Wells, co-founder of Empire Skate, an independently run skate and streetwear store based in Lower Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand. We specialize in skateboards, footwear, clothing, and everything in between relating to skate culture.

We have been manufacturing our own skateboards and other skate hardware for the past 13 years. As we have grown so has our product range, and we now stock over 150 different brands from around the world. We continue to grow the online side of our business and have expanded our online presence into Australia. Our average monthly turnover is around $120K per month.


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

My business partner Trent came up with the original idea for Empire. The store was set up in a derelict mall that was in the process of being renovated. After a few months of trading and a falling out with his initial partner, I bought into the business as we set up a store on the street outside the Mall. Trent and I had become friends at high school and had plenty of good times skating and hanging out since.

Trent Left school aged 16 in 1997 and headed straight to Wanaka for Back to back snowboard seasons at Treble Cone and Whistler, Canada 97/98. Surfed with the Bra boys for the summer of 99. Surfed and skated with the Pauanui crew summer 2000-2001. Hung out at the Surf Shop Most days with Simon Avery and Smurf. Loved the Surf/Skate shop life, took a few notes. Then in 2002 went to the Chatham Islands for a job as a Commercial Cray Fisherman. This was the perfect job to save some cash which would be used to get the business off the ground.

Get your community behind you. Ask them for feedback on products and ideas. Think big, but start out small. Unless you have a huge budget for starting out, be prepared to compromise on solutions.

After the only Skate Shop in Lower Hutt closed down, it seemed the perfect time to open a new skate shop. So in 2003 Empire Skate was born. I had started my own business a few years earlier running gigs and hiring out sound equipment, this would help with setting up some of the initial systems to run the store and business side of things. When we started, the business was underfunded and in dire need of marketing. Running skate competitions was a great way to get exposure and the local community behind us. We did this with the support of the local council and our suppliers who pitched in with prizes. Looking back, I believe that getting involved with our community has been key to our success. It has allowed us to grow and maintain a large loyal customer base in Wellington. Many of our original customers still shop with us today, and there is a sense of loyalty which has helped when competitors have opened up nearby.


Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

It wasn’t until 2007 that we embarked on creating our first in-house skateboard decks.

The first boards we manufactured were through a local board manufacturer and we really left most of the expertise to Dave from Nelson Creek. Every run of boards we did after we explored what changes we could make in the process, and fine-tuned the finished product, and lastly added more marketing material.



Describe the process of launching the business.

Launching our online store has been an ongoing learning experience. Our first attempt in the late 2000s ended up in failure, with a system that was difficult to use with terrible user experience. It was live for around 3 months and never made a sale.

The next iteration was built on a more advanced CMS but still had no integration to our in-store inventory system and was difficult to update on our own. We did start selling certain products that were in high demand really well though. The first product to take off were plastic Penny Skateboards, and we couldn’t keep up with demand.

In 2012 we finally made the switch to Shopify and had for the first time a platform that fully integrated with our inventory management system. Now we began the process of publishing as many of our products as possible to our online store.

The early days were hard work, as we had a large catalog of products in small quantities, which meant a lot of work to get everything online, and often products would sell out in-store before selling online.

Push hard to get deals from your suppliers from time to time. If you are retailing, there will be times you go on sale and you have your margin squeezed. Talk with your suppliers and find out if there are any opportunities for discounts on the stock.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

While we have always had a loyal customer base locally, our online store gave us the chance to reach a much larger audience. Facebook ads were a key tool in growing our sales in the early days. It is still effective now, but the early days were crazy. Popular products would go viral, and the cost would be minimal.

We have always maintained a strong email database with weekly emails to customers outlining new products and the like. We switched from Mailchimp to Klaviyo 4 or 5 years ago and worked on setting up as much automation as possible. This has been a key driver for our sales funnel. We use popups from a company called wise pops that has really helped us convert new customers on our site. And we implemented a shoppable Instagram which is on our main page and has links to the products in our lifestyle shots.

We have stayed away from alternate sales channels like Amazon/Trademe/eBay as we want to keep control of the user experience.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

2020 was a year that I have been looking forward to. I just thought, hell yeah, it’s going to be a rad year. Now with everything that has happened so far, I can see it is going to be an unforgettable year, but perhaps not so cool after all…

Our country like many others has gone into full lockdown, and as I write this we are still in one of the strictest lockdowns, where only essential businesses are allowed to operate. My initial thoughts were this is going to be really bad for business, expected job losses will be huge, there is not a lot that’s positive to take out of the whole situation.

Early on I reached out to all the different services we use and pay for asking if there was anything they could do to help us out while things were crazy, I was blown away by the speed that many of the companies came back to me with generous offers ranging from free services for the next 3 months, to discounted rates. Next, I re-deployed staff that usually work on the shop floor doing sales into working on various elements of our website that were lacking and had room for improvement. We have created as much content in the last 3-4 weeks as we might usually create in 6 months.

Our sales took a big dip in the first week, but have since bounced back and our online store sales are almost making up for our missing in-store sales. It’s early days yet though, and I expect sales to slow down again as more job losses kick in, but also believe we are well placed to survive this period of uncertainty thanks to our online store. Our store traffic has nearly doubled in weeks 2 and 3 of lockdown and shows no signs of abating.


Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Push hard to get deals from your suppliers from time to time. If you are retailing, there will be times you go on sale and you have your margin squeezed. Talk with your suppliers and find out if there are any opportunities for discounts on the stock.

Delivery costs are another one to look at regularly as you can often negotiate a better rate as volume increases, and this is often a large cost for online businesses.

Manage your costs, routinely (at least once a year) check that you’re not paying too much, or if there is a better/cheaper product you could use. Keep in mind that often with new platforms and tools, they are quite cheap as they try and grow their customer base, and once they are established prices will go up, however, often you can stay on the earlier plan at a much cheaper rate.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our website runs on Shopify.

Our favorite apps are:

  • Powertools, this handles all the grunt work with sorting/filtering products via tagging rules, and a whole lot more… they have hands down the best support I have had the pleasure dealing with.

  • Gorgias is the platform we use for our customer support. It centralizes all the different modes and communication channels while fully integrating into Shopify too.

  • Wisepops is the platform we use for popups. It’s the best, but expensive, so if you are just starting out, you probably want to check out some cheaper options.

  • Klaviyo is our goto for email marketing.

  • Like2HaveIt - shoppable Instagram.

  • Searchanise instant search.

  • We use Marsello for our rewards, as this integrates with both Vend our instore POS and Shopify seamlessly.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Neil Patel, sign up on his youtube channel for tonnes of great tips on improving your SEO. He also has a great app for researching keywords called ubersuggest.

Otherwise, I like to research other websites, and pick apart what they are doing well, compare it to what we are doing, and see if we can make any changes or improvements.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Get your community behind you. Ask them for feedback on products and ideas. Think big, but start out small. Unless you have a huge budget for starting out, be prepared to compromise on solutions.

Also, be prepared to make constant and incremental changes and adjustments to your website, and even the business model.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always on the lookout for talented freelance writers that have strong knowledge of skateboarding and streetwear, for copywriting and blog posts.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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