Finding Financial Freedom Through Starting A Matboard Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Mehdi Kajbaf, Co-Founder at Matboard and More ™ , the company that makes framing your art easier than you think. We brought sophistication to one of the oldest industries on earth, picture framing.
Our website allows unlimited choice to get your artwork framed beautifully. You can order framing supplies for any kind of art, whether it’s a standard 5x7”, or a collection of coins. No other company offers as much flexibility as us, particularly when it comes to custom matting which is our flagship product.
I love my life, I’m 33 years old, I work a moderate amount while making enough to live a life full of comfort for myself and my wife. There is nothing I want that I can’t buy and I have the time to enjoy it. I’m able to save up so that I should be able to retire in a few years if I decide to. I could FIRE easily in a few years.
I realize most people are looking for a number when trying to measure someone’s entrepreneurial success but that’s a fools game because the number isn’t the measure, more is always better.
However, if you can live the life you want, have financial security for the future and the freedom to enjoy it, you are probably successful.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I believe that entrepreneurial success is a combination of hard work, opportunity and most importantly knowing yourself.
Most entrepreneurs work hard, but if you don’t know yourself, you won’t see the opportunities that best suit you and you won’t be able to set meaningful goals, so you’ll simply miss opportunities.
I love my life, I’m 33 years old, I work a moderate amount while making enough to live a life full of comfort for myself and my wife.
My career and life journey
I started my career as an engineer, working on traffic problems and after a year of that, I began to panic. Your first full-time job post-University has a frightening permanence to it. I looked into my future, and saw myself as a very successful employee, moving up the ladder, gaining more money, prestige etc.
But the endpoint of that path was deeply frightening for me. Nowhere along that path would I gain the freedom to control my own schedule or make enough money to be financially secure without grinding away at a day job. I felt the handcuffs of a full-time career tightening around me, and I made the decision to escape that path.
So I quit, started my MBA and spent the next couple years pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my values as a person and discovering my passions. I knew that I would always be disappointed with myself and my life if I followed the traditional lifestyle that most of my friends and classmates were pursuing. I could not be satisfied with a career that didn’t provide me with freedom, a fulfilling challenge and solid income (in that order).
I started a blog, worked as a facilitator training employees on health and wellness and kept my eyes and ears open for a chance to hit the trifecta of freedom, fulfillment and money.
A new opportunity
Along that path, in 2012, the opportunity to start Matboard and More ™ came along.
I was ready to throw myself into this project completely because I saw that at the end of this project I would get what I was looking for. I can’t emphasize this enough. At the time, Matboard and More ™ was just a simple wizard to buy matboards.
I was living with my parents, $40,000 in debt and working on my personal blog. There was very little there, but I knew that if I put all my energy into this little idea, I’d overcome a significant challenge by creating a thriving business, gain my freedom (I traveled 9 months last year and had a 3-month honeymoon) and make great money.
It was so simple for me, I knew this business could get me there, so I put everything I had into it.
If I’m being honest, it never really even felt like I had a choice but to pursue this business. The entrepreneurial decision is not a true decision. You can’t bargain with yourself. If you know what you want, and the alternative is misery then you have no choice but to make it work.
Truth is, not everybody cares that much. In my opinion, you have to either hate the alternative to entrepreneurship so much that you will do anything to avoid it or have such a deep burning desire to make your own way that you will do anything to reach that goal. Status quo just doesn’t make sense for people like that, myself included.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
I view ourselves as having two product segments, one is the website and the many customization features we offer. The other is the physical products we manufacture and sell. This distinction provides me perspective because we compete on having the best quality products and the best user experience on the website.
The physical product expertise comes from my partner in charge of production. He is able to source the matboards, frames and accessories that we sell. He also bought the mat cutters, frame joiners and other machines we utilize to create our products. There isn’t a lot novel about the products we sell, these are matboards and frames available in many retail stores or websites. My partners expertise here meant we hit the ground running.
The website is where we separate ourselves. At the time there was nothing like it online, and there still really isn’t though a lot of competitors have started online framing businesses.
The website is completely custom built, it’s not based on Shopify or any other platform because no service can provide the high level of customization we require. A matboard has many features such as color, core, outer size, opening size, reveals, layers etc.
There are so many ways to configure a mat and our builder makes it really easy. Other websites usually limit you in size or color, and don’t have the frames and accessories we offer.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We had no outside investment to start the business. It was all self-funded, mainly through my partners time and personal savings.
Equipment to get Started
We had an initial investment of approximately $50,000 to get the equipment and inventory for startup.
The main equipment we needed were Computerized Mat Cutters (CMC) which we were able to source second hand for amazing prices. I believe we started with 2 used ones, and now have a whole fleet with various capabilities.
We also needed a Guillotine, and we actually found one that was originally manufactured from West Berlin! It’s an incredible machine, probably belongs in a museum but it works so well. It basically can cut through hundreds of mats at a time to get the large sheets down to smaller sizes. We still use it today along with other more modern ones.
This was all self-funded through my partner in charge of production. He was very effective at finding great equipment at fair prices.
MVP Product Launch
The website was created by my partner in charge of technology. A full-time senior developer working 3 months could have created our first prototype, so it was roughly worth $50,000. Since we did it in-house we didn’t have to pay for this.
It was a simple wizard that walked you through the steps to get a very simple matboard. It asked for the outer size and the opening size. Then you could pick a color for the top layer matboard, and then the bottom layer. Finally you chose the quantity and added to cart. It was cool in that you could pick any size and any color, which is still important, however, it was not dynamic so if you wanted to change the size or color you’d be going back and forth through the wizard (not unlike many existing sites today).
It showed that people wanted custom mats though, and then we made the wizard into a true builder which was dynamic. Then we added accessories for the mats like bags and backing boards, later on we added frames. We gave customers options like an oval opening and off-setting the opening.
The website was changing weekly in the first year. We were constantly getting feedback from the paid traffic and using it modify and improve the website. It was really exciting because there was so much to improve on and the constant growth fueled us.
That website hit it’s limits after about 5 years and we put all our energy into the current website which is completely dynamic and mobile friendly. We believe it’s the best user experience in custom matting anywhere in the world.
With the website and production setup, we then invested into advertising and website improvements.
AdWords was the best source of traffic for us. I just had a look and in the first year we spent $68,941 on AdWords, so $5745 per month. That was roughly 40% of our revenue at the time, and our biggest expense.
One of my biggest metrics for success was advertising spend as a percentage of revenue. The only way the business would be sustainable would be if that got much lower. It was an indicator of 4 critical aspects of the business that matter just as much today as they did back then.
- The ability to retain customers and build a loyal following (repeat orders don’t require nearly as much advertising expense)
- The optimization of our website, making sure to convert on our website traffic
- The optimization of our marketing campaigns, ensuring we have the lowest cost/conversion possible
- Organic growth through customer referrals
All four of these scale with size so getting them right has exponential effects down the line.
In the first year we averaged 8,300 sessions/month, roughly 80% of which was paid traffic. To this day paid traffic is still a massive driver for us, but the percentage of paid traffic has steadily gone down which is another reflection of advertising becoming a smaller part of our overall business.
Advertising is the kindling in the fire that gets you started, but if you don’t get some big logs in the form of repeat customers and organic growth you will run out of cash quickly.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’ve really put our focus and energy into traditional marketing principles when it comes to retaining customers. Our focus is simple, provide amazing service, great quality products and keep our prices consistent.
For paid traffic, we use AdWords and Bing. Both work very well but AdWords is the king. There are way more users on AdWords so it’s much more valuable.
We’ve had success with Shopping and Search campaigns but not Display campaigns. Display is a nut we have yet to crack. I think it’s partly because our product is niche. Unless you don’t have a strong intent to buy, (ie. searching for matboards and frames online) then you will ignore the marketing.
Direct marketing with a clear call to action is way more effective for small businesses than any kind of branding oriented mass marketing.
Organic search has become a great source of traffic for us. To grow our organic reach we focus mainly on following Google’s guidelines for on-site SEO. I’m always auditing the site to ensure we follow best practices such as URL structures, tags, keyword usage etc. That goes a very long way and it’s under appreciated.
Our backlink strategy needs a lot more work. I have had a very difficult time finding good places to get links but we’ve organically done very well as customers post their photos and talk about us on forums etc.
We focus on sharing artwork and providing an open platform where customers can reach us. Social media marketing hasn’t worked for us, again, because I don’t think people are going to buy a mat and frame simply because they see an add. There must be a strong intent on their part.
Pinterest was where we put most of our energy initially, but overtime Facebook and now Instagram have become a lot more valuable. Instagram is definitely the future as we see more and more customers posting their art there.
We’ve created a contest with #MBNMPhotoContest to encourage customers to share their art with us. That has been a great way to engage with our customers and see how our products are being used.
Returning customers are coming back almost exclusively because of our quality and service. One of my favorite things to see is a customer that orders $25 of stuff to test us out. Then the next order is $100, and then suddenly they are framing everything and they spend $1000!
The best way to build trust is to do a good job consistently, so treat every order and every customer like gold. Remember, advertising is so expensive so the only way you can be successful long term is keep your existing customers happy.
We also do traditional marketing for repeat customers like e-mail blasts, ask for feedback via TrustPilot review systems, re-marketing campaigns (mostly on Google) and social media campaigns that get customers to share their art, but those are not what gets people coming back nearly as much as simply having great quality and service. It’s amazing how much value there is in just picking up the phone, or getting an e-mail reply back quickly from a competent service rep.
A couple things we do that are special are we put a lot of energy into our packaging, and we don’t run promotional pricing to get customers back.
In our industry, shipping is a major problem. Matboards are thin and fragile, they can also get dirty very easily so we put a lot of time and money into our custom boxes. We’ve gotten lots of positive feedback and the rate of damage is very low compared to other businesses in our industry. That attention to detail really pleases the customer and helps set us apart so that they stay loyal. Of course, any time there is damage we immediately send a replacement.
Pricing is another area where our approach is unique. We don’t use promotional pricing to get customers to return. We believe the prices of our products are fair and we believe that our loyal repeat customers like having price assurance. Waiting on a sale or discount, or just missing one due to bad luck and paying more never made sense to me as a consumer. It’s particularly true for us as all our items are made to order.
My final note is using channels like Amazon or eBay hasn’t been very successful for us as our product is seen as a commodity on those marketplaces. We can’t compete with the generic matboards that are priced very cheaply, and nor do we want to as that’s a much tougher business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are in an amazing place right now as we recently launched our new site allowing customers to order easily on their phones and tablets. We took all the things we learned over the first 6 years of running this business and created the new site with that in mind. That was a very fun process as the older version of the site had become a little bit of a monster.
Our biggest improvement came on mobile, as expected since the previous site was not mobile friendly at all. We saw a 45% increase in transactions and a 65% increase in revenue compared to the same period last year. Mobile traffic is up 27% and it continues to increase more and more so we knew we had to capture that segment more effectively.
We are now focused on promoting the new site, adding new products and putting a bigger focus on our picture framing products. The old site was 100% matboard centric, and while that is our flagship product, frames are a huge market and we’ve made frame buying a much better experience.
We are at a point now where we have established ourselves as the premier custom matting company, we have a very large and loyal customer base and operations are running smoothly with room to expand. At the same time, it becomes tougher and tougher to keep the business on a growth trajectory as you begin to saturate your market. The new website has given us a big boost and a lot of tools to work with so we are very excited about the future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’m a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and our teams management constantly emphasizes that you need to “trust the process” and I believe that is the way to go about it. Every day, do things right and keep moving forward.
So for me, that means treat every customer with great respect, every single time. Check every product feature and website improvement to ensure it works perfectly and intuitively. Improve your marketing campaigns on a daily basis. Cut every mat to the highest standards. Essentially, do everything as best you can everyday and keep building on that.
We have approached the business with that process approach since day one. We never had a singular idea or product that just changed everything. You hear about those types of stories all the time, but it just didn’t happen for us that way. No magic bullet, no one thing that I can say to you made the difference. Just lots of little things that slowly turned into bigger things, upon which we built even more little things and incrementally improve daily.
So for sure make sure you approach everyday with that attitude and back it up with solid measurements so you can know if your approach is working. When we first started and we were getting 1 or 2 orders a day, that was enough for me to know there was something here. Then the goal was to hit $500/day and after a few months we got there. Then consistently hitting $1000 was a big deal, and one day the numbers get really big and it feels amazing because you know it’s built on a strong foundation of great customers, great service and of course in today’s world, great web presence.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The one tool we use which a lot of people may not have heard of is Sendy. It’s an email service using AWS that allows you to send e-mails blasts for a fraction of the cost of a service like MailChimp. It takes a little technical skill to setup but it’s so much better than MailChimp which was costing us hundreds of dollars a month when our email list got large.
Otherwise, Google everything. GMail, GDrive, AdWords, WebConsole, Analytics are all critical to running our business.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I did a whole interview with the CEO Library that went into this question in great detail. To summarize though, 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris was heavily influential. Also, Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry which is lesser known book helped me understand the world in a new way.
I focus on books that give me new perspectives and models of the world. That’s far more important to me than more practical books, although a good one is the One Page Marketing Plan. If you can think big, be flexible and positive you can learn almost anything.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I feel like I’ve sprinkled the same advice throughout this interview, but I’ll repeat it again, know yourself and what you value in life. The entrepreneurial journey is by definition a path you will have to create for yourself. There isn’t a playbook you can follow, there won’t be a boss telling you what to do, and you’ll have to solve problems that others have never seen. It’s really exciting and fulfilling, but it’s also extremely frustrating and at times you can feel very lost, so it’s important to always remember why you started.
What drives you? Is it a lifestyle change, an inability to work conventional jobs, a passion to solve a problem, money? Whatever it is, the better you understand that, the more meaningful everyday will be and the more problems will seem like opportunities. That’s critical for staying focused daily and moving your business forward.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for skilled people to work in our warehouse! We aren’t looking to hire an SEO or social media person exactly, but we are always interested in hearing fresh ideas on how to improve those channels so if you have something you can offer us please do reach out!
Where can we go to learn more?
Our website is the best source of information, Matboard and More ™
Matboard & More has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Matboard & More to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Over 3 years ago, we followed up with Matboard & More to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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