Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Greg Shuey and I am the founder of Empyre Off-Road. Empyre Off-Road is an online e-commerce business that sells aftermarket parts for Toyota Tacoma, Tundra, and 4Runner vehicles.
Our flagship product is our aluminum grille inserts for Toyota Tacomas. Developing this product is how I started the business and I’ve expanded into other products from there. Our customers are owners of Tacomas, Tundras, and 4Runners.
I own several other businesses (a marketing agency, Stryde, a lead generation company, an accessories business for Ford trucks and a baby apparel business) and have been building this business as a side hustle for 4 years and I'm currently doing around $100,000 a month in revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I got the idea for this business based on a specific need that I had. I had recently purchased my first Toyota Tacoma truck and wanted to start customizing the look of it. As I started to research all of the different things that I could do to it and all of the different product options out there, I was taken aback by how much these different modifications and accessories were going to cost me.
About a year earlier I had met an individual here locally who owned a fabrication shop and I began to wonder if I could work with him and his team to start building some of these parts myself at a cheaper cost.
As I began to dig into the different Tacoma forums online I started to ask questions and gather information regarding some of these parts and people's willingness to buy. It was at that point that I realized that I was on to something and that there were only a few competitors in the market who were overcharging customers because there wasn't a lot of competition.
It doesn't take much to start an eCommerce business. You don't need a ton of capital and you don't need to be working on it full-time. I put around 5 hours a week into this business and have since I started.
I knew that I needed to get started and that I needed to bring a product to market that was significantly cheaper than competitors while maintaining the same or better quality.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After coming up with the idea and validating the idea in the different forums. The next step for me was to prototype the product. My younger brother, who is an engineer, helped me work up the initial CAD designs for my first grille. This took about six weeks. I then took the designs to the forums to get people’s feedback.
After going back and forth with forum members I decided on the initial design as well as the type of material that we were going to be using and the different types of coating that we were going to be using on these grills to be able to protect them from harsh winters here in Utah in addition to other areas of the country and Canada that we would be sending these products too.
Once I settled on the design, I reached out to my buddy who owns the fabrication company and we cut the prototype. Guess what… it didn’t fit, so back to the drawing board. At this point, I started working with one of his CAD designers to hone the design and get it to the point where it was going to fit perfectly.
I know absolutely nothing about manufacturing so it was incredibly helpful to be able to have this resource. It took us another 3-4 weeks to get it dialed in and get our first grille that fits produced and installed on my Tacoma.
I feel like the overall process of getting our first product to Market was relatively cheap and somewhat painless which I know isn't the case with most other businesses and I feel incredibly fortunate that this was the case for me.
The initial cost for prototyping was about $2,000. Our first batch included 25 grilles each running approximately $115. Most of my competitors were selling a similar product for upwards of $600 to $700, they must have been getting insane margins on their product. I ended up offering these grills for $225 and they are still under $300 today.
Once I had my grilles (March 2018), I needed to ship them. I honestly had no idea what to do here, so I decided to run to Walmart and grab some large boxes and cut them down, wrap the grilles with cheap bubble wrap and sandwich them in between a couple of pieces of cardboard.
This worked fine for a while and about a year later I ended up ordering some custom boxes with our logo on them that we began shipping our products in. Going this route was quite a bit more expensive than the initial packaging costs ($5 a box compared to approx 2.50), but the quality and professionalism outweigh the added cost.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In terms of launching the business, I touched on the ideation and the manufacturing process already. Before I ordered the first batch of 25 grills the first thing that I had to do was start up a website and build out my social media profiles (Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube) so I had somewhere for potential customers to learn and place an order.
I initially launched the business on WordPress and Woocommerce which was fine at the time because orders were few and far between. I'm honestly not a huge fan of Woocommerce and feel like platforms such as Shopify (which I’m on now) or BigCommerce are much more suited to scale and make it a lot easier for individuals to run e-commerce businesses.
It took me about two months to sell those first 25 grilles. After that, it started to pick up considerably and within 3 to 4 months I was selling about 30 of them per month. It was then that I decided to start expanding into other product categories like lighting, bumpers, decals, roof racks, steps, etc., and working with manufacturers and suppliers to scale up my product offering.
I financed the business with a credit card. All in all, I think it cost me around $4-5,000 to get started with all of the prototype work, the initial order of the product, all of the packaging costs, and any website-related expenses.
Grind it out, get up early, stay up late, do the hard things versus paying someone else and you will be able to reap the rewards of growing and scaling an e-commerce business.
I would say the biggest lesson that I learned from this business venture is to go to the market before you start building anything and talk to your actual customers. You can assume that you have a brilliant product idea but without talking to your customers you can sink a significant amount of money into product development costs and end up with not a lot of sales and a business that generates very little revenue.
Since then I've launched a few other businesses and have always gone to forums and engaged in conversations with active members who fit my ideal customer profile and receive feedback from them. It helps to fine-tune what you're doing and gives you the best chance of success.
The other lesson that I learned is that it doesn't take much to start an eCommerce business. You don't need a ton of capital and you don't need to be working on it full-time. I put around 5 hours a week into this business and have since I started.
There is so much technology out there to help you do your job better and faster and all it takes is a little bit of money whether that's on a credit card or whether you have some cash saved up in an account somewhere and a little bit of time to start.
I think if more people knew that we would have more e-commerce businesses out there making an impact, selling products that are a perfect market fit, and having a significant number of entrepreneurs living their dream lives.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I'm a marketer at my very core. I've been doing digital marketing for 15 years and one of the other businesses that I own is a digital marketing agency for e-commerce companies. So yeah, marketing is what I do and that is how I've grown this business.
As I started to look at what my competitors were doing to drive traffic and sales, I saw a huge gap in the market, probably something that my competitors didn't see because they don't have the expertise that I have. I decided that the way I was going to build and grow this business was through content.
I saw so many Tacoma, Tundra, and 4Runner owners in the forums asking questions and gathering information to help themselves, so I decided that I was going to start building out large guides and resources on my blog that would answer these questions and would teach, guide, and consult these individuals into purchasing my products.
From there, I would take all of this long-form content and I would repurpose it. I would turn it into videos that I would add to YouTube. I would take snippets of this content and use them to share on social media.
I would create additional content that would expand on certain areas of my long-form post and submit those two external automotive blogs to get links coming back to my website. All of these activities have allowed me to be able to grow my website traffic in four years from around 200 visitors a month to just shy of 50,000 visitors per month generating an average of 100,000 unique page views per month.
The only paid advertising that I do is retargeting on Facebook, Instagram, AdRoll, and Google. I'm sure I could grow the business much faster if I was developing prospecting campaigns for these different platforms to market to an audience that has no idea who I am however, I feel that my search engine optimization efforts are enough to be able to bring enough traffic in and sell people my products while using these advertising channels to be able to capture abandoned website visits and abandoned carts.
The other two areas that I put a fair amount of time into in terms of marketing are my email marketing campaigns and my organic social media. With email, I use Klaviyo and have several different flows set up to be able to nurture my customers and cross-sell and resell their different products.
With organic social media, one thing that I do differently than my competitors is that I don't push a lot of my product. Instead, I feature cool pictures of Tacomas, Tundras, and 4Runners and tag the owners of those vehicles while giving them a shout-out. Naturally, these individuals follow me and visit the website and turn into paying customers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Things are fantastic here. We are set to have our biggest year ever and that is largely due to expanding our product offering over the last year. Up until 2020 I only sold a handful of grilles, lighting, and decals for Tacomas.
In 2021 we expanded into Tundras and 4Runners and lots of different product categories such as bed racks, roof racks, bumpers, and other accessories for these vehicle owners.
We also took a little bit of a different approach than we had in the past by becoming dropshipper for lots of other brands. This has allowed us to be able to grow our product offering significantly without having to incur development costs, R&D costs, prototyping costs, etc.
This has allowed us to grow our revenue quite a bit faster, not only by selling customers additional things when they visit for the first time but also by marketing to our past customers and informing them of the new products that we sell.
Since starting the business we've been profitable every single year. In the first few years, we were incredibly profitable with our net income pushing 40%. As we have expanded into other areas and begun dropshipping products this has reduced our profitability down to about 30%.
This is because most of the manufacturers that we drop ship products for have MAP policies (minimum advertised pricing) and firm margins (average is 20%). So there is no room to be able to increase your margins. This is okay because we're generating revenue that we wouldn't have been able to generate before. So I will gladly take the lower margin and the lower percentage of net income at the end of the year.
In 2022 I hope to be able to double the size of the business. To do this I believe that we're going to have to double the number of products that we have on our website. I also plan to spend a significant amount of time doing new product development. I would like to be able to add between 10 and 20 products that are unique to our business next year.
The costs associated with the new product development will cut into our profits, but I believe that that will position us nicely for 2023 to be able to continue our growth. If I'm being completely honest, I hope that I can sell this business by the end of 2023 and be able to take the proceeds and start another 4-5 eCommerce businesses.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Before starting this business I had started four other businesses. I think I was lucky enough to be able to make all of my mistakes with those businesses. I feel as though with this business, the start-up and the execution over the last 4 years have been about as flawless as they could be. I'm sure I could have done some things better, however, it just hasn't been very hard. I feel like I made all the right decisions and have been blessed throughout the process.
I would say that the biggest, most glaring thing that I’ve learned, which could be detrimental to any business, was making sure that I represented the large, trademarked brands correctly on my website.
I don't think it's a big surprise to anyone how protective brands are of their image and the way that they are represented. I have had to be extremely careful in the way that I use the Toyota brand on my website.
I have been contacted by Toyota in the past about using their brand incorrectly and it’s been kind of a pain to work through that. For example, I sell an aftermarket bumper show with Toyota branded products above it and they flag you for trademark infringement.
You have to be 100% clear on the product page that this is not an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and any images containing the Toyota brand are not representative of a product they will be receiving.
My advice is to be overly cautious when selling products that are compatible with a large brand's product. If you have any questions, reach out to the brand and make sure that you are representing them properly so that you don't have to spend a lot of time and resources figuring it out after they contact you.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As mentioned above, I currently run the business on Shopify. I believe that it is the best platform to run an eCommerce business on. It is intuitive and incredibly easy to use and all of the tools that they are building into the platform make it easy for a solo entrepreneur to be able to sell a product and fulfill it without leaving the platform.
Some of the other tools that I use to run the business are Klaviyo for our email marketing. I use Later for our organic social media. I use Teamwork for my project management and task management so I can keep myself on task and execute my vision and strategy.
I use Google Analytics to keep track of my traffic and revenue tied to that traffic. I use Delighted to be able to generate reviews and come up with my NPS score. I use Zapier to automate a lot of my dropshipping order fulfillment. And the list can go on and on and on.
One of the things I would like to do this year as well as to develop some e-commerce tech for me and potentially sell it to other e-commerce companies. I would like to develop a technology that makes it incredibly easy to be able to push orders into different spreadsheets and into different suppliers' e-commerce portals to make it as simple as possible for individuals to be able to scale their dropshipping operations without having to do data entry either themselves or through a virtual assistant. I am excited about tackling this project this year.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Deep work is a book that helped me learn the value of cutting out distractions and hyper-focus on the task at hand. From it, I’ve adopted time blocking where I have a very focused set of to-dos that take 100% of my focus and energy. Like traction, this practice has helped me to apply pressure in the right places to get massive results.
High Performance Habits are a game-changer for anyone in any role. If you want to go from 6 to 10 in any type of capacity, this is the book for you. There is a set of deleveraging things you should be doing every day to unlock your full potential and, again, get massive results.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The biggest tip that I have for other entrepreneurs just getting started is to stay lean and keep your costs low for as long as you can. There are a lot of things that you can do yourself and there are a lot of things that you can find independent contractors to do at a reasonable cost versus paying large companies.
I see too many entrepreneurs going into a large amount of debt to get their companies off the ground or taking on investors and giving up too much of their company before even generating their first dollar of revenue. Grind it out, get up early, stay up late, and do the hard things versus paying someone else and you will be able to reap the rewards of growing and scaling an e-commerce business.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help you get started.
Interested in starting your own business? Join Starter Story Premium to get the greatest companion to starting and growing your business:
- Connect + get advice from successful entrepreneurs
- Step by step guides on how to start and grow
- Exclusive and early access to the best case studies on the web
- And much more!
With BigCommerce, you can build, run and grow a better online business in less time, with less cost.
- Start a trial: Build a store that caters to your unique needs. Get 15 days free when you pick your plan, no strings attached.
- Launch your store: Customize your storefront with powerful features. No design skills needed.
- Convert more sales: Build buzz, find your target customers, and drive even more online traffic.
Start your free 15-day free trial today ➜ (no credit card required)