Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Garrett Barretta and I started COOLERSbyU four years ago shortly after graduating college at the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!). COOLERSbyU sells paintable coolers and accessories that make it easy to customize your cooler.
We started by offering our 26.4qt Paintable Cooler and quickly expanded into Acrylic Paints, Paint Brushes, Bottle Openers, Sealer, Stickers, and more! The majority of our customers are college students involved in fraternities and sororities who are painting coolers for Greek life events like formals and away weekends, as well as individuals interested in crafting and DIY. In these past four years, I am proud to say my business has grown from a few thousand dollars a month, to an average of over $25k per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in Closter, NJ where both my parents are involved in family businesses. My mom is an Insurance Agent for my Grandpa’s Insurance Agency, Hochron Insurance. My dad is a contractor and owner of a Barretta & Sons, a company my great-grandpa started in 1928. Seeing both my parents be involved in businesses that someone in their family had built from the ground up was very inspiring, and probably the first reason why I have always wanted to start my own.
In 2015, I was a Junior at the University of Delaware studying Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation in the newly formed Horn Entrepreneurship program. I was an active member and President of my fraternity. I had a great interest in the Greek life tradition of cooler painting for major fraternity/sorority events that I had been exposed to a few times in college (more on that later!).
The summer after my Sophomore year I had a great internship for Jansy Packaging, an innovative packaging design & manufacturing company, started by a fellow entrepreneur in 2004. I was hired back again Junior year summer, and in fact, I returned to Jansy after graduation and I still work there full-time today! My internship sparked my interest in entrepreneurship and laid the foundation for what I would later need to know to get a product manufactured from start to finish. The combination of my newly gained business knowledge and my fascination with the Greek life tradition of cooler painting is what ultimately led to me to start COOLERSbyU.
The cooler painting tradition is commonplace across many universities with a large Greek life presence. Students take a basic drink cooler, fill in the indented logos, sand it down, prime it white, and then paint with some amazing designs. This process of preparing the cooler before painting is what grabbed my attention.
I watched my friends spend laborious hours filling, sanding, and priming all before getting to the FUN and CREATIVE part of designing. I knew there had to be an easier way for students to paint coolers without struggling with all the prep work. After some due diligence research and conversations with some manufacturing experts at Jansy, I felt I had everything I needed to dive in. I started by putting together a pitch deck as part of the Hen Hatch competition in Delaware.
Hen Hatch is an entrepreneurship competition where students and alumni can pitch their business ideas to get funded. Although I did not make it past the first round of the competition, I was confident in my idea and knew I should continue to push it forward.
When I came home for one of our breaks Senior year, I decided to pitch my idea to the CEO of Jansy, Brad Zaikov. As a fellow entrepreneur, I knew he would give me his honest opinion and candid advice. We met at a local bar, and I presented the makeshift pitch deck I had put together. This deck was not like a traditional pitch deck because I had put together very detailed specifications...it was about half an inch thick with every calculation and detail needed to start my business.
I felt like I didn't know what I was doing, but I was confident, and I did know I needed a solid partner and financial backing to get this idea off the ground. It worked! Brad decided to back my idea and provided me some resources to get it started. All in, it took just about 40K to get COOLERSbyU started in the first year.
Fast forward to October 2016, I was working full time as a Project Manager at Jansy. I had just finished a super basic one-page website and had prepared all the groundwork to get started. I chose to do everything on my own, and teach myself the necessary skills as I went. Luckily, complicated things like incorporation and insurance came easy to me by utilizing my mom’s 30+ years in the insurance industry.
There I was...my first manufacturing run of our paintable cooler was on the water from overseas. I put the website live, and within a day I had my FIRST pre-order! By the time the coolers arrived at my house in November 2016 I had a dozen orders. THIS was all the validation I needed. I was an entrepreneur and my business was on the ground floor moving up. But like many entrepreneurs, I was a perfectionist...I redid my website probably 10 times in the first year until I was happy with the experience.
As the first year went on, I was selling a ton of coolers but I quickly realized how expensive it was to ship a large product. For order fulfillment, I had the idea to utilize a 3PL (third-party logistics company) in California for one half of the US, and my parents' basement, self-fulfilling the other half, splitting the country to ease the shipping process. I had a 3PL in NJ who was storing the coolers cheap, but wasn’t able to ship them out...so my parents' basement and two-car garage became the fulfillment zone.
At this time, this was easy because I was only shipping the east coast orders and I figured it would only be a few units a day. Until it wasn't; scale caught up with me. I started getting 60-100+ orders a day! After a few months having large trucks drop off 100 coolers A DAY to my house, then having to individually label them and drive them one carload at a time to the post office and UPS store.
At times I was using my dad’s work truck in the morning before my commute just to get all the orders. I am exhausted just thinking back! I knew I had to look for an alternative to my hybrid fulfillment situation, plus, my parents’ wanted their basement and garages back! I began the search for a quality 3PL and found Ware2Go,A UPS company; I haven't looked back since.
It's important to not get sucked into buying a mold for tens of thousands of dollars and ask your factory what other options you have. Always quote more than one source, and don't always go for the cheapest option. If you get a bad vibe from someone, don't order from them - your assumptions may be right.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I feel like I've lucked out a bit when it comes to the manufacturing process. Because my internships and now full-time position revolved around design and manufacturing I was able to navigate the process easier than most. Since I was not reinventing the wheel with a cooler, rather optimizing a product that already existed, the design process was much simpler.
I reached out to dozens of factories that specialized in injection molding large plastic components. These were both factories I had worked with before at Jansy and also some that were completely new to me that I had found online or through colleagues. The prices and capabilities varied greatly from different manufacturers. Some wanted to start from scratch and build all new molds for all parts, while some would allow me to modify the parts I needed to be unique.
I ended up finding a great manufacturing partner for my cooler where we only had to modify/produce a few new molds. We jumped straight to the first manufacturing run after receiving one sample from the factory. The first time I visited the factory was actually in 2019 after 3 years of ordering from them.
I do want to warn everyone reading this that manufacturing can be tricky and complex. There are a ton of people out there who either pretend to be a larger factory than they are or those who are just brokers for other brokers of factories.
It's important to not get sucked into buying a mold for tens of thousands of dollars and ask your factory what other options you have. Always quote more than one source, and don't always go for the cheapest option. If you get a bad vibe from someone, don't order from them - your assumptions may be right. If you do need help with manufacturing your product or packaging do not hesitate to connect with me.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My business has been very successful with organic growth. To date, we have only spent a few hundred dollars in 4 years on marketing. Most of our growth has come from our Youtube videos, Pinterest’s, customer testimonials (including their painted cooler photos), and word of mouth on college campuses.
You don't need 50 SKUs on day one and you don't need to make everyone happy. Focus on making one product or service as a minimum viable product and fulfill one niche's need.
Our Youtube How-to videos have proven one of the most effective tools in capturing customers for a DIY product. Naturally, if you want to learn how to do something step-by-step, where do you turn? Most will say Youtube.
Our next largest measurable referral is Pinterest. We pin every customer photo that is shared with us. Cooler painting is huge on Pinterest! Painters often use Pinterest for inspiration and to browse popular designs. The more Pins we can own there, the better chance we have on a potential customer turning into a customer. Although, none of these pins would be possible without our customers sending in their finished products. We make sure to include a request for photos on every email from their purchase confirmation to review requests 2 weeks post-purchase. If you were a customer of ours, please send us your photos! Seeing the incredible designs that our customers paint on their COOLERSbyU is extremely gratifying. There are so many talented artists out there!
COOLERSbyU has been sold on Amazon since we launched. We have had very successful months on this sales platform and we have had months with no sales here. It's very hit or miss for us. I do see the value in being listed here to at least help with SEO. However, when you do make a sale be wary of the high fees, and return policy that you do not have control over.
Our SEO is something I am very proud of. We have over 50 words/phrases that we appear first and second on Google. This is the best free advertising you can get. If you are starting your own business, I recommend spending some time and putting in place all the best SEO practices you can learn. It will be painful to implement but you will never regret the returns you will see from good search engine appearances.
We have partnered with a few brands/influencers over time to help grow our following. Our two most successful campaigns was a partnership with Hyperglow and University tees. Both were Instagram giveaways that helped us reach new followers and grow our business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, I am still full time at Jansy as the Director of Supply Chain Operations and acting as intrapreneur every day. Before and after work, I am firing on all cylinders for COOLERSbyU. Things have become increasingly easier to manage with fulfillment off my plate. While it can be a challenge working full time and running my business after hours, I find it energizing and am fortunate to not think of my business as work but rather my passion. COOLERSBYU has become profitable and is continuing to grow with the addition of new products.
While our core product is paintable coolers and accessories, I see us as an important player in the DIY space. When the pandemic struck and masks became recommended and in some cases, mandatory, I realized this was another opportunity for our DIY-loving customers to customize something in their life. We launched MASKSbyU, a kit containing 2 breathable cotton masks and 6 fabric markers so customers could create a mask fitting their personality. We also partnered with Packed Health to bring our customers the best personal protective equipment (PPE) at affordable pricing. It is a new space for us, but I am learning to adapt as the world changes.
In the future, I plan on spending more time figuring out an advertising mix that will work best for COOLERSbyU. This is something entirely new to me but I hope to leverage my girlfriend's experience at a media agency to help me be successful. I am hopeful that a good marketing plan will help me reach new customers in my niche but also allow me to expand to new groups who may enjoy my products.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have learned many lessons from my experiences so far. The three most important are time/dedication, routine, and people. Over a few years of starting COOLERSbyU, I have spent most of my free time working. I have missed out on a lot of social opportunities and experiences with friends and family. The balance of social life and work life is hard to manage as an entrepreneur. I have so much dedication and drive to be successful with the business that I often missed out on the fun my friends were having. There aren't many things I would change in the early days, but I would have made more time for my friends. Thankfully, my family and friends are very supportive and believe in the product, so they are understanding of my commitments to COOLERSbyU.
The next most important lesson I learned is forming a routine. In the beginning, I had a difficult time adapting and making the time needed available to work on my business. I found my groove when I started waking up early, driving to my office to work out at the gym, then eating breakfast and working on my business at my desk until everyone started to arrive at 9 AM.
Then I would flip gears, work a full day, and drive home. After dinner, I would label and pack boxes until every order was complete. I try to be in bed by 10:30 but this wasn't always possible on the really busy order days! No matter what, I would find time to watch a quick show and relax before going to sleep. Now that my fulfillment has been fully outsourced, I do find more time to watch a show, play Xbox or just relax after 9 PM before jumping into bed.
Finally, I am fortunate enough to have people around me that I can rely on. My mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, and girlfriend have all come in to save the day many times. Whether it was coming over to help pack orders on a busy night, or driving a carload of boxes to the post office on a morning that I had a meeting at work, I can always rely on my people to help me out.
With my job at Jansy, I have been fortunate enough to travel to China and Vietnam a few times. My biggest fear while being away was who was going to take over the work I was doing and make sure orders were going out? Luckily, I had my family to step in and ensure I didn't need to worry. There was even a time where my paint packaging was mislabeled and the government told me I couldn’t sell any until they were fixed. My girlfriend came over the weekend and we spent all day re-labeling over 1,000 sets of paint one by one.
This was one of the many moments I knew I was lucky to be surrounded by people who cared about me and wanted me to be successful. I’ve learned to surround myself with people who support me and also to reward them; I sent my parents for a spa day to thank them for the many mornings of driving back and forth to the post office and UPS store.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use BigCommerce for my website in combination with Shipstation and ShipperHQ. I have fully outsourced to Ware2Go for fulfillment and warehousing. Ware2Go has been a lifesaver! It has allowed me to offer my customers 2-day delivery nationwide without the headaches of self-fulfillment.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Although I hate to admit it, I am not a big reader and have not listened to any podcasts. I think the best resources to gain skills or learn new things comes from getting out there and doing it. Most of the new skills I have picked up from starting COOLERSbyU are from me getting out there, trying it, Googling it, or calling up those who are professionals and learning from them.
There's plenty of people out there who are willing to talk to you about what they are passionate about, take advantage of their knowledge and learn from them. I have found that most entrepreneurs are generous with their advice and knowledge. We have all been there - whether Day 0 trying to figure out where to begin, or Day 514 hitting your first scaling problem - I have had people help me through those days and look forward to helping fellow entrepreneurs get through them too.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
My best piece of advice to everyone is first, don't be afraid to jump in and start your own business, and second, don't feel pressured to be perfect on your first go at it. I think not doing these two things is the biggest mistake any entrepreneur can make. So many people are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and start their own business but you can’t succeed unless you try! On the other hand, some dive in too fast and spend way too much money, time, and resources trying too many things at once.
You don't need 50 SKUs on day one and you don't need to make everyone happy. Focus on making one product or service as a minimum viable product and fulfill one niche's need. Build your business by getting some sales and then scale up. If you try to scale up before you have sales you will just be wasting money and time. As you grow, you can add more products, SKUs, and make other niches happy, but start with the basics.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am currently looking for help with blog posts and social media/email marketing. If you are interested, I would love to hear what you have to offer!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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