Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Jerome Bulkan and I graduated from Minnesota State University in Mankato Minnesota with a degree in business. My technical background is in aviation and risk management. Together with my brother Andy, we started manufacturing European license plates in my parent's garage back in 1987.
Today, we manufacture license plates for over 140 countries and over 90 states and provinces in our 20,000+ square feet state-of-the-art facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and ship worldwide.
Our flagship products are custom authentic-look license plates from the United States and around the world. Licenseplates.tv went live back in July of 2003 and we were the first eCommerce store that enabled shoppers to customize their license plates online and review the customization before adding to the shopping cart. Back in 2002, this was quite a feat and our software development team spent several hundreds of hours in programming time.
Our customers range from auto enthusiasts, serious & Investment minded car collectors, automotive museums (the Henry Ford), collectors, high-end automobile auctioneers like RM Sotheby’s, advertising agencies, and virtually all the motion picture studios in Hollywood, California, Canada, and London, UK. Our license plates are detailed and accurate which is a requirement for motion pictures filmed in HD or IMAX formats - Licenseplates.tv plate props have been in over 300 major motion pictures, TV shows. Our monthly revenues exceed $200,000.
Licenseplates.tv’s business model is uniquely Just-In-Time because 98% of our orders are custom license plates made for customer personalization. Our customers can also call us or email any license plate they would like to replicate and we in most cases meet this demand. Continuous personalized service is the foundation of our business model and this sets us apart from sellers on Amazon, eBay, Zazzle, Etsy, and a few others.
While our products are custom license plate replicas and not originals, car collectors and prestigious automotive museums trust us to manufacture years of manufacture for their show cars. We also support American Museums like Henry Ford and have donated 1939 District of Columbia license plates to finish the restoration of the 1939 Lincoln presidential limousine use during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. Henry Ford proudly presents our license plates of historic American automobiles.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in the summer of 1986. I was trying to buy a German license plate for my new car and could not find one. Even Motor Trend magazine classified ads did not have any German license plates for sale. I then inquired to purchase some German license plates through Klaus Gennerich Export-Import, a family friend, located in Hamburg, Germany.
Meanwhile, our unscientific research found there was quite a good demand for German license plates in South Florida. So rather than purchasing just a few German license plates for personal use, I flew with my brother Andy to Hamburg, West Germany the day after Halloween in November 1986, Germany consisted of West (BDR) and East (DDR) at that time. Our German agent and the manufacturer of license plate equipment were helpful by demonstrating the German/European license plate manufacturing process.
We also learned (hands-on) how to customize German license plates at the factory. Later in the evening in Hamburg, we decided to place an order for the German/European license plate manufacturing system (to be paid in full upon return to the USA). This was a unique business that no bank will finance, so our family delved into savings to pay for equipment. The brand under which the business was established was Euro Sign.
Euro Sign’s office was my bedroom (with a Sharp FAX machine/phone) and our parents’ garage was a manufacturing location. We were up and running by April 1987 offering the largest collection of German and other European license plates (Great Britain and the United Kingdom), France, Netherlands, Belgium, and others.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Euro Sign’s equipment from Germany arrived in early March 1997 and was supposed to be converted from 50 Hz (German Electric Frequency) to 60 Hz (American Electric Frequency) but will not work when installed. We had to hire a local engineering company to solve the difference in frequency issue. We also ordered German Bundes (Eagle) seals and expiration decals from Germany for our products to enhance the authenticity of our license plates. Plates were sealed in clear plastic bags for delivery.
Your product must be unique and not sold by endless merchants on eBay, Amazon, Walmart.com, and others, or it will be a race to the bottom through pricing. Be different!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Before the license plate manufacturing equipment arrived from Germany we embarked on door-to-door marketing - all auto accessory stores and tuning shops. Marketing consisted of simple but elegant monochrome leaflets distributed to auto accessory stores with order instructions. Our customers can FAX orders in and we guarantee delivery around the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area in a few days. Euro Sign was later advertised in the Motor Trend classifieds area, but this was not an efficient media for custom European license plates - a bit complicated where customers mail in their orders with a check/money order to our PO Box. Motor Trend advertising was expensive and sales barely paid for the cost of the ad.
We also participated in local car shows and the Miami Auto Show to gain exposure. The auto accessories stores which placed the most orders were not the fancy exclusive shopping mall stores, but those which were located in lower-end shopping centers. By the Christmas season of 1987, we were up all night manufacturing orders for local delivery - with 94% placed by auto accessory retailers. Euro sign also offered a myriad of European license plate and imprint colors including Yellow, Black, Blue, Green, and Red which drove more sales. The end customers mostly did not install our German/European license plates on German/European cars but US and Japanese brands!
Marketing custom products through retailers was inefficient and error-prone, but highly profitable for our retail dealers and also for us - the manufacturer. However, Eurosign wanted to increase our presence in the market and one of our dealers in Florida suggested the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Trade Show in Las Vegas.
We signed up for this show in 1989 and it was a learning experience - makeshift chrome stands for displaying products and a small postcard with products for sharing with interested customers (auto accessory store owners). Somehow, regardless of our not-so-savvy booth, our German/European license plates drew interest from retailers countrywide and we received large orders from the show offering little or no discounts.
A great website with excellent products and poor SEO or advertising will be the same as the best restaurant with top-shelf food and service located where no one can find it. Failure is certain. There are millions of eCommerce websites on the internet and drawing prospective customers to your store is most important.
Many retailers from the SEMA Show wanted custom replicas of Year of Manufacture license plates from the 50 states in the United States. The requests were relentless, so Euro Sign tooled for USA State license plates and offered a new product line - driven by our customers.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Back in late 2001, we noticed many of our dealers located in shopping malls were shuttering operations. This was a countrywide situation and each dealer complained about explosive rent increases. Another retail avenue for our products was necessary and the answer was in the back of a UPS truck. In our area, there was a discount perfume and fragrances retailer shipping hundreds of packages each day by UPS. After reviewing their website, we decided to venture into online sales with these criteria:
- Creating a state-of-the-art website where shoppers would customize their license plates, review and place them in cart
- Easy and safe checkout
- Be first on the internet with customization of license plates (eBay sold mostly old state-issued license plates)
- Offer custom license plates with spot-on fonts, correct colors and hues, accurate layouts, and free shipping to all USA addresses
Our internet corporation was registered in Florida on 18 January 2002 and our domain name Licenseplates.tv was registered on 12 March 2002. An internet development company was hired in April 2002 to create the website criteria listed above, hosting and providing SEO for one year.
Licenseplates.tv went live in July 2003. Due to the complexity of the online customization development and over 4000 products (license plates from all 50 states and US territories, Europe, Japan, and 120 countries), the cost of web development and creating images was over $100,000 in 2002-2003. Licenseplates.tv was profitable from Day One!
Licenseplates.tv is customer-driven. Unlike most online merchants, customers can call us and discuss their various needs. Customers may need a license plate that is not in our catalog, so having an expert review and meeting our customer requirements is imperative. We bring our customers' ideas to life. We were lucky that in the early days, the online competition was negligible. So our SEO and content creation team uploads will get tagged on Google quite fast.
- Relevant content with expert information and stories without offering discounts or sales gimmicks
- Clear and defined online store policies and product pages with excellent images
- Free shipping in the USA
- Fast Replacement due to manufacturing errors
- Unique one of kind items which are not available in other online stores
- Product differentiation
- Constantly adding products that fit our product line in quality and uniqueness
What Does not work:
- Email marketing to current customers constantly
- Pricing Gimmicks - offering a low price but adding shipping, and other hidden charges
- Low-end items for our unique customers can be found in low-end websites or brick & mortar stores
For young eCommerce startups, we have a few pointers:
- Your product must be unique and not sold by endless merchants on eBay, Amazon, Walmart.com, and others, or it will be a race to the bottom through pricing. Be Different!
- Customer service powered by a live person answering phones and replying to emails - instantly. Live Chat services answered by robots are a no-no with most customers, but especially with higher-end customers.
- Quality of your products must be excellent - customers love top quality and when combined with good service, your site will be bookmarked and shared.
- Go the extra mile for your customers. Deliver on their unique requests by pivoting from your store’s catalog. Maybe they are looking for a different color or expedited delivery.
- Listen to your customers. Back in 2014, we offered license plates from a small population but popular country. Our emails immediately were inundated with requests from auto enthusiasts from this larger country - the phone calls were quite convincing. We invested in the tooling and from November 2014 to May 2015, we sold over the US $1,000,000 of this country’s license plates online. Except for Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, very few startup entrepreneurs can gauge all the needs and wants of customers.
- Being Different and Unique means you do not have to compete against the internet Big Box Stores: Amazon, eBay, Walmart.com, etc.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Customer acquisition costs keep increasing compared to 2003 due to competition (the internet marketplace is crammed with inferior me-too products. When Licenseplates.tv launched online in 2003, Google was much easier to get a higher ranking or well-placed text ad. Today, this arena is a minefield and we rely on Google AdWords specialists to construct and monitor programs. Today we also have Facebook/Instagram re-marketing which was not around in 2003 -yes we also advertised on Yahoo!
Back in 2003 all your website needed was:
- Secure Payment Gateway like Authorize.net
In 2021 the requirements have increased and this adds to cost:
- ADA certified website
- PCI Compliance due to increased fraud
- Website to be optimized to meet Google’s customer experience criteria - not product quality, etc., but directives, if implemented, may increase sales of perhaps a mediocre product. Think of an inviting restaurant with great decor and waiters with bad food. Google’s demands and penalties requires constant monitoring by SEO team adding to costs
- Optimizing websites to work well in a myriad of web browsers, tablets, mobile devices, and desktops.
Back in 2003, there were two online stores in our area which did quite well-selling brand-name fragrances online. Increased competition and the same brands of perfumes and colognes drove prices down and neither of these online stores exists today. Me-Too products are a price race to the bottom and have low margins. Our advice to startups is to ensure your products are unique with a sizable differentiation from current offerings before investing.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The market for goods and services never sleeps. Demand and trends change and online merchandisers must also change strategies and offerings to meet these changes. Be cognizant of the depth and breadth of these changes and do not change based on a fad - maintain your foundation or culture of your organization but still try to supply related “fad or seasonal” products. For example, pumpkin spice latte is a seasonal beverage and offered in the fall after Halloween but is discontinued by Christmas. Do not associate your brand as a seasonal brand!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Feedback is important and we use Gather Up to gauge customer response. Although we started this process a little over a year ago, Licenseplates.tv has over 4000 first-party reviews with a 4.8/5 stars. We listen to our customers to offer relevant products and services. Our customers can be auto manufacturers like Ford/Lincoln or Auction houses like RM Sotheby’s who may need unique products with a short lead time, so Licenseplates.tv expedites production to ensure our customers can get their license plates on time. Our SEO and AdWords/Facebook marketing teams employ a myriad of various platforms to drive success. MOZ tools are most important for SEO.
Licenseplates.tv is also a premier supplier of license plates for the movie/TV production industry. On many occasions, we are required to expedite production so Prop Masters can get these products in time for shooting movies.
For shipping, we use the Endicia tool for USPS. Overseas packages are sent mostly by DHL - a very efficient service and customers prefer it compared to USPS International Priority. We also use FedEx and UPS for overnight shipping within the United States..
During Covid, USPS has been a bit tardy with deliveries due to increased volume.in packages. USPS is now back to a more normal delivery schedule.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Any article or podcasts by MOZ is recommended. MOZ, in our opinion, is the best tool for SEO and online marketing. We were first introduced to MOZ back in 2003 and have not stopped following their advice. Our SEO Guru was recommended by MOZ (MOZ does not receive referral fees for their recommendations).
Books which influenced us include: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Zero to One by Peter Thiel, Megatrends by John Naisbitt and a few others. Our guide is no new idea for a good or service is written in any non-fiction book or textbook. Entrepreneurs must find their niche product or service by “being curious” to fulfill particular demands.
Our license plates are props in major movies and this drives customers to our website, but many sites that may sell a product like Organic Toothpaste may not have the same “buzz” but can get endorsements from important people or groups who promote these niche products.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Starting an online store or any business today is easy, but more regulated than in 2003 when licenseplates Work hard and concentrate on your customers and changing customer attitudes, change in laws and market trends. It is possible to have a great eCommerce site and good SEO rankings but with a poor product, your sales will be awful.
Genuine product differentiation must be your core decision for venturing online. Also, if you have a real competitive advantage in pricing, then use this advantage. This is a rare situation, but a pricing advantage over the long term can be a winning strategy.
A great website with excellent products and poor SEO or advertising will be the same as the best restaurant with top-shelf food and service located where no one can find it. Failure is certain. There are millions of eCommerce websites on the internet and drawing prospective customers to your store is most important. It has become expensive so budget for online marketing smartly.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are looking for Graphic designers with good communication and planning skills and proficiency in Adobe Illustrator.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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