Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Michael Maher and I run a service agency that helps brands to grow their businesses on Amazon. Our entire business is managing the entire Amazon channel for brands so they can focus on growing the brand as a whole.
Managing this channel requires several different skill sets from copywriting to advertising so this informed how we set up our business, including the structure and who becomes a part of our team.
2019 was a very difficult and challenging year for our business. We stayed level on revenue but profitability was way down and we lost money. We were forced to take a long hard look at our business and what we were doing. As we realized our service was much more valuable than we were giving it credit, we made some big changes in our pricing.
We work with brands that have a very defined brand story and recognize the power of Amazon. Our clients typically come to us with 3 different backgrounds; they’ve attempted to grow on Amazon but have yet to find the right strategy, they’ve yet to get on Amazon, or they’ve worked with someone else previously and were disappointed with the results.
We are currently growing all of our clients and with that, along with the new clients we’ve taken on, we’re averaging $25,000 a month in revenue, on track to grow 300% and are incredibly profitable. 2020, despite coming with a pandemic, has been a great year for our business.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am a musician turned business owner. Ever since I was a kid listening to my Different Lifestyles tape by Bebe & Cece Winans, music was an integral part of my life. It made me feel things nothing else could. I eventually started playing drums when I was 12 and later picked up the piano and singing.
After several bands and years later, I had reached a dead-end with music at the age of 20. I had dropped out of college to pursue music full time, only to have the band I was currently in break up. I was at a loss. My plan to “just keep playing music” didn’t settle so well with my girlfriend at the time, my now wife, as one could imagine.
After some thought, I ended up going back to school. I was working a job during college and ended up staying on after I graduated. I worked my way up to a management level position, thinking it would be exactly what I was looking for. After a year in the role, I came to an important revelation; I hated the job. And I wanted out.
As a musician, I had been buying and selling used music gear on eBay for fun and to turn a profit. I had a friend who has started an entire eCommerce business selling new products on eBay. Because I had previous experience with eBay, I reached out to my buddy to get his help on how to start my own business that way. I went to a very traditional route of buying a product at a trade show and then started on my venture on eBay.
After a year of growing the business while I worked my other full-time job, the business was successful enough for me to leave the job I hated and be an entrepreneur full time. I soon launched my business on Amazon and my website. I created several brands, some that failed and one that worked. For 6 years that business was successful and grew each year. Amazon quickly became 70% of our business and was a big focal point for the success of our business.
In 2016, my business started to encounter some real trouble. In 2015, Amazon had opened up the market to Chinese sellers and the market quickly flooded with cheaper products that were selling for the wholesale price those same factories were selling to US sellers. My business had been banking on one specific product, that very quickly dropped in sales as the Chinese sellers were controlling that market. Within months, my cash flow dropped to 0 and I realized that I could no longer take a paycheck. I had to get another job while I figured out what to do with my failing business.
As I worked this other job, I quickly pivoted into freelance and consulting work in the eCommerce world. Since I had the skillset on how to run a successful eCommerce business I figured I could parlay that into a service-based role. I very quickly saw a need for Amazon specific work and decided to go full force in that direction, knowing that scaling a service agency would be much different than a product-based business... I began contracting another freelancer to help me grow the business and things started to take off from there. Over the past 3.5 years, we’ve been able to grow our business at an incredible rate and now have an entirely remote team of 12 people, all spread throughout the world serving clients across the world.
Early on as an entrepreneur, I was afraid of change. I shied away from it. But when my product business began going downhill, I took stock of the past several years and realized I had avoided changes over time that eventually caught up with me.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Initially, it was pretty easy. I took on short term projects that were not that deep in scope and it allowed me to see the problems that we’re facing all kinds of sellers across all categories. One day was keyword research, the next advertising optimization.
Knowing I would have to scale, I started to interview other freelancers that I could hire. I had to bring on somewhat repeatable projects, which required me to begin writing SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) documents to ensure the quality of work was met, as that was my highest priority when it came to scale. One of the biggest
We took on more work and began to build out a team. The idea of running the entire channel of Amazon for businesses became both a very apparent need in our work and more possible as the team grew. As we landed full-service projects, I realized the true value of taking care of the entire channel and was able to leverage the knowledge of our team to garner a greater price. We also have to regularly level up our game to make sure we are providing the value for the price we’re charging. These check-ins help us be real about the services we’re offering, what we’re doing well, and how we need to improve.
Our biggest cost, to this day, is subcontracted labor. While we do have software we utilize, because we’re entirely remote, we don’t have typical overheads like other agencies do. To accurately price ourselves and get an understanding of our margins, we’ve had to track time spent on projects very closely and reassess pricing regularly.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We never really had an official “launch.” When I got started, I initially took on as many projects as I could, regardless of pay, to get more experience. I remember taking a copywriting project on, which required me to write 500 words for $4.50, total. Once I knew what I was capable of handling and what I could reasonably charge, I began taking on more specific projects, especially as it relates to Amazon. It took me about 4-6 months to bring on enough clients to really
I took on all kinds of eCommerce projects but Amazon projects were both more rewarding and exciting. Because the system is very holistic, and success on the marketplace requires you to take a holistic approach, it made a lot of sense to focus solely on Amazon.
Our legal business name is Matters of the Cart LLC and it’s what we operated under during the eCommerce product business days and the beginning of the service business. As we began to mature in both our messaging and our services, I was feeling the need to rebrand. We began working with a friend of mine who had his branding and design firm and that had done previous work for me.
We underwent the rebrand and afterward, that’s when everything started to reach new levels. The brand Cartology made more sense. The branding gave us a powerful focus via consistent imagery and tone of our storytelling. We began to overhaul our services, bring on new team members, reposition people in roles, and hone in on our ideal clients. Once we had a strong idea of who we were as a brand, we were able to take better ownership of what we were doing.
Hire people that are better than you. You can’t do everything alone. You’re going to have weaknesses and you need to hire people for those weaknesses. Allow other’s strengths to compliment your strengths.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
LinkedIn has been tremendous in our efforts to grow the business. I always had a LinkedIn profile but I got more involved in early 2017 as I was figuring out my business direction. I began seeing that some people were creating content, like other social media platforms, but all focused on business.
I continued to engage with the platform and began creating content of my own. I started with longer, thought-provoking, philosophical style articles that were reflective of where my mind was at as I made this big life transition, from product to service-based business. I also dabbled with posting different kinds of content but never video.
After being more engaged on LinkedIn during 2017 & 2018, and getting clients from my presence there, I decided to level up. In 2019 I jumped into making video and putting myself out there to help grow my agency’s presence. I wasn’t used to being the face of a brand but I saw how popular video was and knew I had to step up my game. That’s a big theme with me if you haven’t noticed already. Evaluating where I’m at and then leveling up to make sure I’m fulfilling on my promises and pushing myself to do better.
We launched a new website when we rebranded and it began to attract more people, as well as get more traffic from the people I was sending to it from LinkedIn. As I made more videos and content consistently, I began to see more people engaging with my content, i.e. 3 people commenting on a post as compared to 0. It took time and I could not stay discouraged about the metrics I saw in the beginning. I made so many great connections. Not every connection was a direct link to business but it created a thriving group of friends and colleagues, a larger more responsive network, clients, speaking opportunities, and a sales coach, to name a few things.
Early on as an entrepreneur, I was afraid of change. I shied away from it. But when my product business began going downhill, I took stock of the past several years and realized I had avoided changes over time that eventually caught up with me. My main product that began to take a hit when Chinese sellers flooded the market could have been updated to better retain its price point but I hesitated to make any changes. I hesitated because I didn’t want to mess up “what was working.” I’ve evolved since then and realize that change is inevitable. It’s a big part of why Cartology has a future-focused ethos; we recognize change is coming and would rather lean into it than avoid it. Change can be scary but sometimes scary is needed. A big wave could be scary for a swimmer but a surfer, it’s the whole objective.
As our agency has grown, we’ve been able to get a better view of the competitive landscape and we’ve honed in on two important areas of focus: service and strategy. We provide the highest level of service, building a strong bond with clients, and instilling trust in us and our services. We customize a strategy for every client because each client has different needs and resources. To get them to excel, we have to cater to their needs. Being the biggest just isn’t that important. While there are many agencies out there helping people with Amazon, as long as we’re striving towards providing the best service paired with the best strategy, I know we’ll be successful.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re currently on track for 300% YOY Growth. Our profitability is around approx. 30-40%, which is incredible considering we lost money last year. My reach on LinkedIn is continuing to grow and I’ve begun utilizing it as a sales tool more formally, prospecting for new clients. I’ve been able to build a strong pipeline for the past 6 months and we’re on the verge of bringing on several new clients. But, we only bring on the ones we know we are going to crush it for. Otherwise, it’s just not going to be a great fit for us. We’re so focused on quality over quantity that we’d rather pass on a project that isn’t the right fit than attempt to bring someone on for the sake of growth. We’ve done it the other way and it just didn’t work.
Find a mentor, someone that is willing to answer your questions about business and life and learn from them.
The coronavirus pandemic affected our workflow very little, if at all. We’re 100% remote so we continued with work as we normally would. It did, however, affect our client’s performance and so we had to rethink strategies that were working previously.
It pushed us to look at all our clients and think about proactive changes we could make to get our clients to not just survive this crisis but thrive. All of our clients are either growing, becoming profitable, or remaining profitable, all during the past several months.
As our operation has grown, so have our services. We’re able to help brands in entirely new ways than we were just 12 months ago. We brought on a data scientist to be our Head of Data and he has helped us to create better reporting, generate models to better analyze data, and make better strategic decisions.
We’re excited about the rest of 2020. We’ve got a podcast being launched, we’re updating our website to better reflect our positioning, launching a new blog, and several more content pieces that are going to be super helpful for anyone looking to better understand the future of retail. That future heavily involves eCommerce.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Some of the biggest makes I made as an early entrepreneur were due to my lack of understanding of how money worked. I didn’t know what a balance sheet was. I forgot to think about profit when I was pricing items. I used credit cards like they were loans. I took out cash advances and predatory loans. I didn’t understand a lot.
Starting the service business, I was mostly on a clean slate. I didn’t quit the other job I was working to make ends meet before I had a solid base of clients and an understanding of how I was going to scale the business.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that pride can lead to a major downfall. I always knew that, but when the agency began to grow, I was forced to look at myself in a new light. I had to dissect WHY I was running an agency and that the true purpose was. The purpose is something that you’re born with. It’s something that is created by God specifically for you. You have to find that purpose and then find the vehicle for that purpose in your everyday life.
One of the best things that occurred as the business grew was my partnership with my business partner. Brittany McCormick and I met via LinkedIn when I needed an account manager. She and I began working together over two years ago, while she had her own Amazon consulting business. Since then, she has become the VP of Business Development and we’ve rolled up her consulting business, Story Box, into Cartology as an a la carte service offering that utilizes the infrastructure at Cartology but is being provided at a more affordable rate than our full-service offering.
I never saw myself as someone that would be consulting another person on business decisions but she was the exact right person for me and Cartology. Her experiences complimented mine and she has brought a whole new level of professionalism to our organization. Cartology would be nothing that it is today without her hard work and support.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As a remote agency, we utilize a ton of helpful software. Below are the tools we use and how we use them:
- GSuite - their email plus additional organizational tools such as Drive, Docs, Sheets, and Slides are all integral parts of our processes.
- Slack - When I first signed up for this service, I honestly thought it was stupid. A year later when I saw it being used correctly, I had an “aha” moment. I immediately went back to my team and set it up. This is all about communication. We have communication on other platforms but this is our centralized place for communicating.
- LinkedIn - content creation and interaction with other people. Sales prospecting. I use Sales Navigator for more targeted prospecting. Finding team members and clients.
- Asana - this task management tool has helped us to create templates for our service offerings and better organize our projects. I’m a huge fan of the UI.
- Everhour - time management is super important to our business as we constantly have to know what a project costs us to better evaluate pricing and profitability. Everhour allows us to do that.
- Ignite by Seller Labs - this advertising optimization software allows us to make quick optimizations to ad campaigns through a web-based interface and gives us ultimate flexibility when sorting data.
- Helium10 - a great Amazon keyword research tool, as well as a tracker for product rank and other important metrics
- Keepa - tracks product listings and changes made to them, giving us real-time alerts.
- Tidal - I need music throughout the day. This does the trick.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love learning and reading when it’s my choice. The following books and organizations have been integral to my success:
My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers - this daily devotional has challenged me in new ways each time I read it. I’ve been reading it for the past 7 years and even though the lessons are the same each year, I always grow from them.
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz - This book transformed how I view the world and how I interact with other people. To effectively interact with other people, we must first know from what lens they are viewing the world.
The Only Way to Win by Jim Loehr - mental toughness is a necessity as an entrepreneur. This book helped me to take on my fears of failure and my insecurities and come out victorious. Another book in this same vein but with a different approach is The Happiness Trap by Russ Smith.
Ocean Programs - getting involved in this local Cincinnati accelerator and entrepreneurial community changed several things for me. It helped me realize I wasn’t alone. It gave me a community. I got connected to resources I never had before. I kept showing up at events and got a chance to talk about my business. I got an opportunity to help others that are involved with Ocean.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Ask for help. Ask for it often. We all need help. Sure, we could try and figure everything out for ourselves but why wouldn’t you want to get advice from someone who has been there before and survived. Are you too big to learn?
Find a mentor, someone that is willing to answer your questions about business and life, and learn from them. There are plenty of people out there willing to be your mentor. All you have to do is ask.
Hire people that are better than you. You can’t do everything alone. And if you do, it’s a lot more boring being there by yourself. You’re going to have weaknesses and you need to hire people for those weaknesses. Allow other’s strengths to compliment your strengths.
Get over yourself. We often have preconceived notions about things and people. Those notions are often created without us being conscious of them. Why is racism a thing? Because certain races are better than others? No! It’s because people learn something when they’re younger from outdated ways of thinking and that becomes their belief system. They hold tight to it when things change. Lean into change. Change is good. Make mistakes and admit you made a mistake. These are all qualities of true leaders. Just because you’re in a management role doesn’t make you a leader. Real leaders lead from right where they are.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re looking for people all the time and we want to be prepared, which is why we interview often, even when a role isn’t open.
We’re currently looking for Account Coordinators, to help keep accounts running, be the main communication point between us and our clients, and help create a strategy for clients. Having experience with Amazon on the client-side, or agency side, is a must.
We eventually are going to need an Operations Manager, to oversee everything and make sure things continue to run smoothly. This person must know Amazon well and be able to train others on Amazon.
We are always interviewing for Data Specialists. It’s an entry-level role that gives you the most hands-on experience with how an agency or a brand interacts with Amazon.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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