Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Ryan Popoff and I am the owner and maker at Popov Leather. We are a Canadian company that makes and sells small leather goods online. The majority of our sales are focused on direct-to-consumer and almost entirely in the USA.
Since 2013, our business has been doubling in revenue year-over-year with 2018 generating over $850k in revenue. In particular, November was our highest grossing month with over $140,000 in sales. That’s a lot of wallets!
Our top selling products are (you probably guessed) wallets. People love a great quality wallet backed by our amazing customer service.
The Popov Leather Team
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Popov Leather started as a hobby.
After I graduated from art school, I had no idea what to do with myself. Leatherworking appealed to me because of how sculptural it is. Leather can vary wildly; from the way it’s tanned, the type of animal it comes from, down to how thick it is. Exploring leather as a sculptural material excited me and I was supported by a fantastic community both online (Reddit, leatherworker.net) and offline (vendors such as longview leather).
Eventually, I made a wallet that I was proud of, something I would love to carry with me. I took a few pictures and listed it on Etsy.
Don’t rely on consensus or approval from your peers, staff, and loved ones. Many people will tell you that you won’t succeed, prove them wrong.
To my surprise, someone bought it! This propelled me to make more wallets, explore other items, and use other types of leather. All the proceeds from the sales that Etsy brought us was put towards new tools and materials.
I worked a day job for a while, 8 hours a day at work then 8 hours at home working on orders as they came in through Etsy. It was a lot of work, but thankfully my partner (now wife) was there to help me through it. She took on work and hand-sewed and shipped, while I assembled and managed customer-service and marketing.
Eventually we made enough revenue for me to quit my day job and focus on Popov Leather full time. It was the hardest decision I ever made: will I succeed? Will I fail and have to look for another job?
Ultimately it was the best choice I ever made.
This snowballed into where we are today, 6 years later. We have grown from a small 1 person operation in an apartment dining room to employing 10 people full time in our 1,400 sqft workshop.
2013: Workbench in my living room.
2019: Our workshop today.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The very first product I designed and sold on Etsy was the front pocket card holder. When I started to teach myself leatherwork, my first project was to design a wallet that I wanted to carry. Something minimalist and simple for my pocket.
I spent a lot of time browsing Leatherworker.net and youtube for lessons and inspiration. My dayjob allowed me a lot of free time to do so, so I spent my breaks and lunch hours watching the greats: Ian Atkinson, Nigel Armitage, and many other craft hobbyists. I was obsessed with it and determined to make something.
I waited until Tandy Leather had a sale on their “Deluxe Leatherworking Kit” and purchased it online. It came with everything I needed to make my very own cheque book cover. The tools were somewhat poor quality, but it gave me an appreciation for finer tools down the road.
After countless hours hunched over my dining room table, I came up with a crude concept. I continued to refine the cardholder until it was something I was happy with and then put it up on Etsy. I approach all our products in the same manner and generally use new products for months before finally offering them up for sale.
As sales kept increasing, I had to find smart and faster ways of working. Instead of cutting leather by hand with cardboard patterns, I invested in a clicker press and steel dies (think giant cookie cutter). This made production a lot faster and much more consistent. I could punch 20 wallets in the time it would take to trace and cut one by hand. Eventually I got Jill (my wife) involved, I taught her how to sew up a wallet and she then became my business partner - she was working for free after all!
Sales didn’t stop and it’s been a learning process ever since. We’re always looking for ways to innovate in our large workshop. Whether it’s through lean manufacturing principles, larger more expensive machinery, or even just new ways of motivating employees, the learning and improvement journey never ends for us.
First Iteration of Cardholder on Left
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our business was first launched on Etsy as an experiment.
We sold a few wallets and injected that cash back into the business to buy more tools and leather. At first it was only one or two wallets per week, it was enough to motivate me to make more and to invest that cash back into the business. Eventually word-of-mouth started to take hold and people would actually talk about our product online. Places like Reddit would have people commenting in subreddits about us whenever a “What kind of wallet should I buy?” thread would pop up. Etsy started to get busier and busier as time went on. From a few wallets per week, to a few dozen per day.
It took at least two years of working a day job, before I could focus on Popov Leather full time. For me, having that safety net of a day job was one less thing to worry about while growing the business. When Popov Leather could consistently pay me my day job salary, I knew it was time to jump in. At the time, I was making about $3,000 after taxes at my day job - at the time this was good for us. When Popov Leather started doing that, my mind started to race. Days in the office were spent thinking: “why am I sitting at this desk? I should be at home talking to customers.. Selling even more wallets!” Eventually I got tired of wasting my time in the office and handed in my resignation.
I felt pretty awesome telling people why, although I could feel their skepticism. Looking back, this feels like such a long time ago.
Since this time, we have been completely boot-strapped with no business debt. It is very important to me (and my sanity) to work on a cash basis.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Word of mouth has been our primary driver of sales since launch. Having a product that is functional, well-made and backed by amazing customer service does most of our selling for us.
What really sets us apart from our competition is customer service - every bad experience can be turned around. We’ve had customers who don’t like our product but will still leave us a 5 star review because of our customer service. For example, we had one customer who purchased a wallet and decided it was too thick - he was quite surprised when we gave him all his money back and paid for return shipping. Not something he expected from a “craft” wallet maker.
However, a growing business can’t simply rely on word-of-mouth alone.
We try our best to capture email addresses at first point of contact. Klaviyo’s robust automation flows helps us retain and remind visitors to complete a purchase on our website. One of the biggest lessons in ecommerce (that I should have learned sooner) is to collect everyone’s email address. Klaviyo does an amazing job of syncing that email to a customer’s behaviour on your website. Send each visitor a pop-up right away and offer an incentive. Almost everyone will not make a purchase on your website, but if you have their email, you can increase that probability through browse abandonment, add to cart abandonment, and welcome series flows. This always keeps you and your product at front of mind for customers. You’re leaving money on the table without this in your marketing arsenal.
We’ve been collecting for 3 or 4 years now with a list hovering around 7,000 highly-engaged people. It’s very important to prune your email list at every corner. If someone is on your list and they aren't buying or opening emails, suppress them. You risk the chance of email providers sending you to spam and you pay more per month to Klaviyo. Keep it lean n’ mean.
We’ve also dipped our toes in CPC with the most success coming from Facebook prospecting and retargeting ads. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and taking FB ad courses and ultimately it comes down to letting Facebook do the work for you. You will need a good budget (at least $50/day), but if you give Facebook enough data, they will bring buyers to your website. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend ADmission or Unicorn Academy.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re at a very exciting and pivotal moment for Popov Leather. I’m thrilled to say that we’ve been accepted into a non-tech accelerator program called RevUp. This program brings a panel of experts and successful entrepreneurs to help grow and advise our business.
We’ve doubled our topline revenue year over year since our inception. Here’s a picture of our revenues since 2013:
But with this exceptional growth, comes a lot of growing pains. What has worked for a small team, no longer works for a team of our size, and will certainly not work as we get even bigger.
Unfortunately, I can’t delve into specific numbers or KPIs as this is part of our RevUp tasks. I am working on those as we speak. Our 2019 goals are to increase our profitability, refine our processes, and expand our reach into wholesale markets.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Don’t rely on consensus or approval from your peers, staff, and loved ones. Many people will tell you that you won’t succeed, prove them wrong.
People who spend their time agonizing over a logo design or constantly reading self-help books to the point of paralysis are doing themselves no favors. My advice is just to get out there and DO IT.
Back in 2013, when I told my mother that I was making money selling wallets she told me to “make sure [I] knew that this was only a hobby.” I remember sitting in a pub, someone asked what I did for a living and his reply was “you make money doing that?”
There is a turning point when people start to take you seriously, but it comes long after you’re successful. Even then, it doesn’t ever stop. Keep your head down and plug away, only YOU know the value you’re bringing to your business. Don’t let anyone else convince you otherwise.
Talk is cheap! If being an entrepreneur was easy, everyone would be doing it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Although we got our start on Etsy, we predominantly use Shopify for Popov Leather.
Alongside Shopify our most valuable tool has been Klaviyo for email marketing. Klaviyo’s flows have made us a lot of money: abandon carts, browse abandonment, back in stock, and welcome series flows are big revenue generators that only need to be set up once.
Store owners leave a lot of money on the table when they aren’t focused on 1) getting customer emails 2) using those emails to retarget and remind potential customers. To give you perspective: Klaviyo’s flows have made up 21% of our revenue in the last 30 days!
Instagram has also been a great source of new customers for us. Not only that but it’s forced me to up my photography game which translates into better product photography.
Which leads into my most beneficial tool: my Nikon d750. Good product photography is CRITICAL for anyone selling product online. Get good at it! Especially for our higher-end leather goods, people want to touch or even smell a wallet before buying. Since we sell online, we must be able to translate that experience through a computer screen.
If you’re pictures are mediocre, you will increase friction and cast doubt on your product.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I can’t put my finger on one particular book that I’ve read. Most of the value that I bring to Popov Leather comes from advice from other entrepreneurs and trial and error. I’ve been a member of the EcommerceFuel forums for a few years and it’s been a great resource
Always be the dumbest person in the room - and I am by far the dumbest person in those forums. It’s been a tremendous boon seeing what works and what doesn’t coming directly from other successful business owners.
Occasionally I will have time to listen to podcasts and I find that the Unofficial Shopify Podcast has been great listen. Listen to other entrepreneurs who are still doing, rather than the ones who are only teaching.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I’ve been asked this a few times. The biggest hurdle I see in starting a business is actually doing it. You’ve probably heard the term “wantrepreneur.”
People who spend their time agonizing over a logo design or constantly reading self-help books to the point of paralysis are doing themselves no favors. My advice is just to get out there and DO IT. Perfect your logo as you’re selling, read books while you’re selling. Just go with your gut and learn from failing. Don’t be afraid to fail, because it’s the best way to learn.
I designed the Popov Leather logo with a sharpie and a scribble. I took a picture of it with my cell phone and it’s what you see today. I didn’t spend time thinking about it, I just slapped it on my Etsy store. 6 years later and I still haven’t thought about it; maybe one day but for now we have wallets that need to be made.
Obviously this approach won’t work for everything, just focus on the product and service you provide because that is what your customers are going to remember you for - not that you had a sweet-looking logo.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are currently working on hiring our first production manager. The biggest struggle from growing as fast as we are, is not having performance metrics. How are we doing day-to-day? Can we promise large wholesale orders within a certain time? Where do we need to hire to fill in gaps?
I am hoping we can find the right person who has a background in lean manufacturing and production floor experience. What worked for Popov Leather when we were 2-3 people is starting to show its limitations as we grow. The right person will hopefully free up my time to grow the business even more.
Where can we go to learn more?
- [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
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 others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!