Meet Gary Amstutz - A South African Entrepreneur Making Waves
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello everyone - from a warm and sunny South Africa. My name is Gary Amstutz and I have been involved in eCommerce for almost 15 years now. StickerandLabelSA.co.za is actually one of our newest sites but has had the fastest growth curve to date.
Our online shop offers a quick and easy way for anybody in South Africa (and beyond our borders) to order customised and personalised Stickers, Labels or Decals. We take ownership of pretty much the entire experience, from pre-sales to online/offline sales to production/dispatch and then post-sales.
This niche has a pretty competitive retail playing field, but we were first to market with a fully functional, super quick and easy to use eCommerce site. We have further carved out our niche by focusing on our own unique USP, which is - Any Shape, Any Size and Any Quantity.
On top of that, our core culture is one of laser-like focus and dedication to giving any suspect/prospect/customer an experience that consistently exceeds their expectations and ultimately turns them into an advocate.
We have grown from Zero (orders/sales) a year ago, to an average of about 10 orders a day and sales of about $10,000 per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Like pretty much everyone else in this space, I had a pretty windy road leading up to a career in the eCommerce space. When I was at school, this space didn’t even exist and eventually when I started gathering an interest in eCommerce, the first Dot Com Bubble was still painfully fresh in everyone's minds!
I was born in Cape Town (South Africa) but then ended up spending a lot of my childhood living all over the world. My Dad was a civil engineer, who moved to South Africa from Switzerland for a work. South Africa, at the time, was a pretty sheltered environment and the experience and exposure of traveling and living in many different places around the world had a big influence on me and ultimately played an integral part in nurturing my adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit.
We eventually moved back to South Africa, where I finished school and started University. I spent an amazing five years there and finished off with a law degree behind my name. I also majored in economics in my undergrad degree, which was a big plus when I later went into the commerce field.
Although I ultimately didn’t go on to practice law, the lessons learned were invaluable and I don’t think I would have been as successful as I have been if I had not had this privilege. A thorough understanding and appreciation of the law is of course vital in business, but it was also more of the softer skills that I came to rely on later in life - i.e. critical thinking, negotiating and principles such as fairness and reasonableness.
Interestingly, the entrepreneurial bug had already bitten at University and together with a few mates, we dabbled in a few small projects in between our studies. None of them shot the lights out, but it gave me great exposure to the fundamentals and pitfalls of starting and nurturing a small business.
Following the completion of my law degree, I took what ended up being a two-year break. I first spent a year in Switzerland working as a waiter in a very busy coffee shop/restaurant. I had done quite a bit of vacation work during my studies, but this was my first real job! The job was not easy, but the environment was great and there were colleagues and customers from all over the world.
The hospitality industry is an exceptionally great place to learn about customer service and customer experience management. The application of these principles is sometimes different online, but the principles remain largely the same. I would definitely attribute one of the reasons for my success to the customer service/experience skills and experience that I picked up during my time in Switzerland.
I then bought an around the world ticket and spent a year traveling the world and doing odd jobs, including picking vegetables and being a bricklayer’s assistant :). This time was again invaluable, as I met more people from all walks of life and experienced many different countries and cultures.
Back to South Africa
In 1996, I arrived back in South Africa with every intention of starting a career in law. As it happens, I met up with some family friends who had just opened a PostNet franchise - one of the first in South Africa. PostNet is a business services and courier franchise, originally coming out of the States. To the best of my knowledge, South Africa is the second largest territory and there are now well over 300 outlets across the country.
There was a once-off opportunity to open a store of my own and I grabbed it with both hands. This was my first proper business! We got some initial help from the Franchisor, but our store was not in a major centre and at the time, support from both an advisory and a marketing perspective was virtually non-existent. It has improved since... :)
Needless to say, the time spent in and on this business was foundational for what was to come on the eCommerce front. I gained broad experience in the following key areas (often the hard way by trial and error) - marketing, sales, business development, financial management, retail space management, merchandising, managing a small team, operations (software/systems/processes), supplier & stakeholder relationship management and the courier industry as a whole.
It was during this time that I came across a great non-core product (Rubber Stamps), that I felt would be a great complementary addition to the existing basket of products we already offered to our customers. After researching the market and sourcing a supplier (Trodat), we purchased our first machine and I taught myself how to manufacture rubber stamps. The first batch took about 13 hours! Luckily, we eventually got this down to around 25 minutes and at that stage, were one of the few Rubber Stamp Manufacturers in the area. Rubber Stamp sales were soon a very big chunk of the total sales mix.
...and then the internet thing happened :)
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I was a member of a few online business forums at the time and there was more and more chatter about people starting to look to sell products/services online.
In my opinion, the next frontier is going to be all about the customer experience - i.e. the product or service you sell online is almost going to be secondary.
One day I received an email from a founder of one of these online forums advertising a course by Corey Rudl from the Internet Marketing Centre, titled - Insider Secrets to Marketing your Business on the Internet. This sounded exactly like what I was looking for and so I forked out a few hundred hard earned Dollars, and then waited!
You need to remember that this was before the age of online training and it was a good couple of weeks before a big box arrived at the local Post Office. Inside were a few thick files of printed course notes and some CD’s/DVD’s.
I worked my way through the course a few times and I think that this was really the catalyst to actually taking that first step. Tragically, Corey Rudl was killed in a motor racing accident in the month that I opened up my first eCommerce shop - www.RubberStampSA.co.za. He really was way ahead of his time and I am grateful for the knowledge he shared. For those that are interested, here is a link to a site that was set up by a student and colleague of his to remember him by - https://remembercorey.com/
Describe the process of launching the business.
After doing Corey’s course, I set about trying to find a web development partner. In those days, there were only a few hosted/self-hosted carts and if you had a personalised/customised product, the only real route to go was to build a bespoke eCommerce site.
I eventually found and vetted a shortlist of three possible webdev partners - interestingly the difference between the highest and lowest quotes (for essentially the same thing) was a factor of almost 10 times! Sadly, this hasn’t changed over the years.
The site launched in June 2005 and the first month we did a whole…. 2 orders :). To many people this would have been an absolute disaster but to me it validated the entire business model.
During our second meeting, we discussed potential domain names on the porch of their converted house. At one point, the lead developer went into the dark and magical core of their web development studio and came out a few minutes later to proudly announce that the top level domain (RubberStamps.co.za) was available. At the same time, he handed over the contract for the job and I agreed to read through it, sign it and fax it back the following day - yes we still used faxes in those days :).
Before I could do this, he very coyly phoned the next morning to say that he had had another quick look and that sometime in the preceding 18 hours, the domain had been snapped up by somebody else. I had rather cynical thoughts at the time (which proved to be untrue), but we were forced to come up with some alternatives at very short notice. We eventually settled on RubberStampSA and ended up building up that brand and also a host of complementary sites around the same brand theme.
The site launched in June 2005 and the first month we did a whole…. 2 orders :). To many people this would have been an absolute disaster but to me it validated the entire business model - it showed me that people could find us on the internet, successfully navigate their way through our site, place an order for a customised product AND then be willing to part with their credit card details at the checkout!
It took many years of blood, sweat and tears to build up the business as I had no external/additional sources of funding and so the growth of the business was completely bootstrapped.
The eCommerce environment in South Africa was also very immature and we had unique and significant hurdles that we had to climb over. Internet Access was very limited and very slow. We have a population of 50+ Million and even today, in some provinces broadband internet penetration is below 25% of the population. In addition, it was only possible at that time to pay online with a credit card (not with a debit card) and the percentage of the population with a credit card was in the single digits. By my estimation, when we started out, there were less than 200 fully functional eCommerce sites in South Africa at the time.
On the plus side, we were the first movers in our niche and from a human and a SEO perspective, we continue to reap the benefits of this today.
Today, things are of course a lot easier if you want to launch an eCommerce store. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as it reduces barriers to entry and forces you to look for other areas to compete in. As I mentioned above, in my opinion, the next frontier is going to be all about the customer experience - i.e. the product or service you sell online is almost going to be secondary.
What this means though, to those with a great idea, a willingness to experiment and lots of passion, is that you can pretty much get yourself online in a few weeks. Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give here then ,is that you should strive for excellence and not perfection at the outset - understand and embrace the concept of the Minimum Viable Product.
Clearly you need everything to be functional and you need to have a support team(s) to help fix any major technical problems, but the rest of the plane can be assembled after you have jumped off the proverbial cliff :)
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I would list the following key areas that have worked very well for us over the years to attract new customers :
Despite the fact that the real estate for organic search results in Google is getting smaller and smaller each year, this is still a vital focus area if you want to create a sustainable eCommerce business. There isn’t enough time to go into this topic on its own, but you would do well to learn about the subject matter yourself - even if you do decide to outsource some/all of this work.
Certainly, don’t assume that your expert web developer is also going to be an SEO expert. This is a very specialist area and I feel that you need to have a deep understanding of the subject matter yourself, in order to be successful.
Once you have optimised your site initially, spend time and money on content creation in the form of a Blog on your site. By all means, use social media and other marketing channels to push traffic to the site and the blog posts you author, but the intrinsic SEO value will be in the post itself.
In addition, don’t just suck your thumb for content. If you have the skills and experience, start with keyword research AND also make sure that you are focusing on a category/product that you actually want to push i.e. it is profitable and/or a loss leader for a very specific campaign.
Google Ads (Adwords) is still a very important channel for us and always has been. The nature of the proverbial beast is that they are an advertising business first and a search service second.
As I mentioned above, the above-the-fold real estate that Google are allocating to organic search results is decreasing every year. The image below is from a great article on this topic published in 2016 and is worth a read. Keep in mind that since then, Google Local and Google Shopping are taking up even more valuable space - pushing organic listings ‘deeper into the grave’
What this tells you, is that you are going to have to have a little bit of ‘skin in the game’ (Google Ads) as part of your lead acquisition strategy.
Again, my recommendation would be to learn as much as you can about using and optimising Google Ads and to then manage this yourself. Whatever you do, don’t be seduced into upping your bid or budget, simply because there is a new kid on the block or because Google is suggesting this course of action to you. The latter may well be a valid suggestion, but do your homework first…
Website UI/UX (User Interface / User Experience) and conversion optimisation
After many years doing bespoke development, I eventually chose WooCommerce as our web development platform.
The reason for this is that I felt it offered the perfect balance between having a self-hosted, robust, secure and community-driven base, whilst still giving us the flexibility to do custom development on top. This has enabled us to focus heavily on the UI/UX aspects of StickerandLabelSA.co.za in order to increase conversion rates
If you are spending precious time and money driving traffic to your site, you should give yourself the best possible chance of converting that traffic to sales - or at the very least hooking them up as future prospects.
Get the balance right between features/functionality and speed (time between landing on a page on your site and completing an order). It is a very delicate balance and will ultimately be informed by demand and feedback from your users. If you have a product that can be easily purchased on a mobile device, this point becomes even more important to focus on.
Online Chat could in fact be a dedicated point itself, but for the purposes of this exercise I have included it under conversion optimisation. This is probably the one initiative that has had the quickest and most significant impact on our conversion rates. Online Chat is not rocket science, but it is also not simple and can be very difficult to get right consistently.
Lastly, if you haven’t heard of or don’t understand the Pareto Principle, do some research and keep this in the back of your mind whenever you are doing any updates to your site.
I have dabbled a bit in social media, but to be honest, the results have not always been commensurate with the time invested and there has always been lower hanging fruit which delivered a far greater return on investment. This may be as a result of our product mix and/or a lack of specialist skills and experience from my side - I have also tried outsourcing this previously and the results have been dismal.
It is important to note here that just because something that you have tried doesn’t work, doesn’t mean that it will never work. Sometimes the macro/micro environment is somehow simply out of sync with what you are trying to do. I tried Online Chat in the early days (twice) and it just wasn’t the right time - but on the third attempt, we had moved into an age where instant messaging was now the norm and not the exception, with fantastic results.
On that note, I am going to have another stab at Social Media through the Instagram platform. I quite like the visual nature of Instagram and believe it lends itself well to eCommerce generally.
Retaining Existing Customers
There are two primary ways in which we retain existing customers - for one we use technology and the other is a delicate blend of people, software, systems and the culture of the business.
I have been a big fan of email marketing and have remained so, even when there were more ‘sexy’ alternatives glittering on the sidelines.
Up until fairly recently, we used Constant Contact and sent out a weekly ‘broadcast/generic’ newsletter to our entire database. This seems prehistoric now, but the metrics were always good (open rates / click through rates / conversion rates - tracked with a unique coupon code). It also enabled us to remain ‘front and centre’ in the minds of our customers, so if they were looking to place an order, we would immediately come to mind.
About a year or two ago, the email marketing sector had a tectonic shift and saw the entrance of a number of new SaaS players offering automated and intelligent email marketing software solutions. After some experimentation and testing, I settled on Drip. I am still learning the dark arts of Drip, but it has already been a game changer for us and has enabled me to send great content, to the right person(s), at the right time and within the right context - seamlessly.
Focus on service and the customer experience
This one rolls off the tongue quite easily and is quite easy to get right in fits and spurts, but the magic comes in doing it consistently:
You need to have the right culture for starters - one where the customer is at the centre of the universe.
- Your culture should include a deep understanding of the FLTV (future lifetime value) of a customer.
- It should also include a myopic drive to advancing the customer journey from suspect, to prospect, to customer and finally to an advocate.
- You should empower your front-end team particularly to make snap decisions in order to ensure that your customers expectations are not only met, but exceeded at every touch point.
You then need the right people with the right training.
- You need good leaders who buy into and understand the value of pushing hard for a world-class customer experience.
- You should also carefully select team members for these roles and be mindful that some may excel in some areas of customer service and not in others e.g. chat versus email versus telephone.
- You must incentivise and reward your staff for delivering on your promise.
You need the right software and systems.
From my experience and after testing many different HelpDesk services for over a year, I would look no further than HelpScout.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As RubberStampSA.co.za grew, our database of loyal customers increased and we started getting enquiries for a range of complementary products.
At that point, I took a step back and made a strategic decision to launch a range of similar products. Each of these product categories are on separate and dedicated domains, but they are all connected and in the same brand stable.
The key though is that that they are complementary i.e. we can market new products/services to our existing and fiercely loyal customer base.
Over the last 4 years, we have rolled out another 4 sites, with 2 more currently in the wings and another planned for next year. The new sites are:
- NameBadgeSA.co.za - Full Colour Badges and Engraved Badges / Button Badges and Office Signs.
- BusinessCardSA.co.za - Business Cards / Loyalty Cards / Appointment Cards
- PlanPrintSA.co.za - Plan Printing and Colour Posters
The most recent site and one of the ones showing the greatest initial promise is StickerandLabelSA.co.za - custom stickers, labels and decals (Any Shape/Size/Quantity).
Here is a quick snapshot of where we are now as a group:
- Our customer base is now over 40,000+
- We are about to move past the 100+ orders a day mark
- As we are a manufacture/printer selling directly to the end user our gross margins are extremely healthy.
- We have built up to a team of 12 people and don’t expect to grow beyond 20.
- Our next focus point is spreading our wings into Africa through a partnership with DHL - our international logistics provider.
- Future growth will be through existing products/customers as well as new products/customers.
- I am also actively looking to acquire existing eCommerce businesses that meet a very specific set of requirements.
- The medium term goal is to grow the business to the $5 million a year mark.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I could talk about a wide range of topics here, some of which I cover a bit further down under ‘Advice for Entrepreneurs’, but I would like to take this opportunity to talk about mental well-being, physical health and a healthy work-life balance.
The meme below is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I found it on the internet and unfortunately can’t give credit to the author as it wasn’t given.
Running your own business is a challenging and lonely road. There are many ups, many downs, fires to fight, amazing wins and incredible frustrations - every day!
Firstly, I think you need to be honest with yourself and decide if this is truly the path you want to follow. There is no free ride and at some point you will need to pay the proverbial Ferryman.
If you do choose to go down this road, it will be an incredible journey and a bit of forward planning in the following areas will mitigate the extent of some of the pain points and make for a much smoother and more sustainable journey:
Look after your body (you only have one)
You will spend long periods of time in front of a screen on a chair. You will ALWAYS have time to spend at least 30 minutes a day exercising - even it if is just a walk.
Make this part of your daily routine. It will help keep you physically fit, is a great form of meditation and will clear your head.
- Be mindful of the physical effects that long periods of continuous stress can have on you body - physically.
- If you can, participate in a group sport - even it if is just socially. This will give you the exercise benefit as well as making you part of another tribe - one that is outside of your existing eCommerce world.
Look after your mind
awareness is a very important first step. Be honest with yourself and acknowledge that there are going to be incredibly tough times ahead. Remember that proper planning will prevent poor and erratic performance, so don’t make things more difficult for yourself by always flying by the seat of your pants. The following tips are also very important to getting through the tough times:
- Seek out a Mentor - someone you trust implicitly and who you can share anything with. Talking about things definitely is the first step to taking the sting out of the tail.
- Join an eCommerce Community - you are not alone! There are many others in the same boat as you, experiencing the same highs and lows. A community can help provide common solutions and can also be an amazing form of support when you are going through really tough times individually.
- Don’t get cabin fever - it is easy in the confines of the digital environment to become too introspective and to not want to get out the front door. Push yourself to attend physical networking events and make time for activities outdoors with/without your friends/colleagues.
- Look at the bigger picture - your eCommerce journey is part of a much bigger journey, namely your life. Sometimes, in the heat and passion of the moment, events can take on monumental proportions and can seem completely insurmountable. They may or may not be, but take a step back and ask yourself whether, in the greater scheme of things and as massive as the event(s) might be at the time, they are really that important/significant…
- Don’t fear failure - success in the digital environment comes with a great deal of experimentation and a bit of gambling. You will never be successful with every single thing that you try. If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it.
- A very wise man (my Dad), once told me that sometimes it is better to walk away than it is to run away...
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I am a big fan of SaaS tools/platforms and after years and years of testing and experimenting would strongly recommend the following for any eCommerce business that operates in the same space that we do:
HelpDesk - HelpScout.
I have been a big fan of HelpScout since day one. I love their software and their culture. They also seem to have got that delicate balance right between rolling out new features (which could upset the applecart) and maintaining a stable platform. HelpScout has replaced almost all our external emails - in fact the sales team no longer use an email client. It makes us look and feel professional. As one scales the collaboration functionality is also a critical enabler.
Internal Communication - Slack.
In much the same way that HelpScout replaced external emails, Slack has pretty much replaced internal emails and has enabled better/slicker communication internally and also helped foster community amongst our work family.
Online Chat - Zopim** / **** Zendesk Chat**.
HelpScout has just released their own chat service which integrates automatically into their helpdesk. Whilst this is very appealing, the allround functionality, dashboard and reporting in Zopim / Zendesk Chat, still gives it first place on the podium for me. I would recommend it especially for those who want a single dashboard and live analytics for multiple eCommerce sites they are running.
Business Process Management / Production Workflow - Pipefy.
This one is a relatively new addition for us and we are probably only using 10% of its functionality and features. It does however provide a critical link between sales and production. The support has been a bit mercurial of late, so I wouldn’t yet stick my neck out and recommend this one.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
If you are like me, you probably read a book a day in emails, reviewing documents, doing research online etc. Unfortunately, that doesn’t allow much time for ‘normal reading’. My advice would be not to fight this - it is what it is…
But, there is still a way you can continue learning from the experts and from community resources. In fact, there are three:
- The first is Audible - for those that don’t know, Audible is simply an Amazon platform for downloading audio books. To give added flavour, they are often narrated by the author. My first Audible book and the one at the top of my recommendation list for anyone in the eCommerce space would be Delivering Happiness (A path to Profit, Happiness and Purpose) by Tony Hsieh. This is a MUST read.
- The second is Podcasts - there are quite a few good eCommerce Podcasters out there, but I would have to recommend Chloe Thomas from the eCommerce MasterPlan. You can listen to my interview with Chloehere.
- The third is eCommerce Communities - again there are many online and offline communities to choose from. Andrew from eCommerceFuel runs a great one, but it is aimed at well-established eCommerce entrepreneurs only.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I could write a whole book on this topic - actually I am :). Until the book comes out, I would say that the top five lessons I can share with aspiring eCommerce entrepreneurs, after 15 years in this space, are:
- Product - Choose a product(s) to sell online where you can somehow add value. If you are simply selling widgets, the big online retailers are going to make mince meat of you - unless you have another very unique USP (e.g. specialist knowledge and support).
- MVP - Launch with a minimum viable product. There are many many people with great ideas out there who are still talking about their great ideas...
- DIY - Try and do as much as possible yourself - at least at the beginning. The more you outsource initially, the less chance you will have for success.
- Experiment | Measure | Analyse | Tweak - constantly. If you ever feel comfortable in your success, rest assured someone is just behind you - hungry and ready to disrupt your space.
- Competition - be aware of who your competitors are and what they are doing, but don’t focus on them. Believe in what you have and spend your time focusing on your own business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At this stage, we aren’t looking to hire anyone more this year. However, if you like our story and would like to come and work for me, send a covering letter and short CV to [email protected]
We are growing at over 40% year on year and will have new positions opening up in the near future.
Where can we go to learn more?
As I mentioned above, the social space has never been a huge focus for me. Having said that, I am having another foray with Instagram and you will find us/me here:
- Gary Amstutz - that is me :) - garyamstutz
- StickerandLabelSA.co.za - stickerandlabelsa
You can also find my interview with Choe Thomas from the eCommerce MasterPlan here - https://ecommercemasterplan.com/sticker-and-label/
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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