Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Mike, I own RedlineGoods - a specialty automotive interior accessories site with over 20 years of history. We make leather shift boots, steering wheel covers, armrest covers, and other miscellaneous interior accessories.
We have grown from a small family business of 3 people to a $1M+ operation and over 2500 unique products:
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in 1999, I bought my dream car - a pearl white 1990 Nissan 300ZX. It was an awesome piece of machinery for a college student, and it even ran well (for the most part) but the interior was pretty drab, which was especially visible on the vinyl factory shift boot with the ebrake boot not being much better. My girlfriend at the time kept harping about it until I eventually just pulled the boot out, handed it to her saying: "Don't like it? Get me a better shift boot!"
And guess what! She did get me a new shift boot. Found some local upholstery guy and had him make me a set of boots for both shifter and brake! They looked great too!
I posted pics of the new shift boot on TwinTurbo.net (which still is an active 300ZX forum almost 20 years later!) Here’s a picture of the first-ever product we’ve made:
The next day I had 49 replies from people asking me where I got the shift boot from and can I get them one also, and how much. That’s a very significant number, after all, 49 is 7 squared. Lucky number squared!
Didn’t take much more than that to realize that this could be a small side income to my full-time job in IT.
Back in the early days, no credit cards online, PayPal was still incumbent, we had to deal with checks and Money Orders but hey, I got about 50 guys a new shift boot for their beloved Z in two weeks!
I’ve used the same source for a while, but people started coming to us with comments like love my new Z shift boots, but I also have an XYZ car, how about that car? When the range of cars we catered began growing, I realized I needed to set up a proper shop, since the guy who built the original set for my car kept insisting that he’d been wanting to retire before he met me. I thought it wouldn’t make sense to try to keep him from his plans, and started looking for someone who would want to do it.
I was blessed with finding a great person, who’s still the head of the manufacturing for RedlineGoods, and she’s been growing her team as needed, as the business has been slow, but steadily growing ever since.
Our MO hasn’t changed much - all our items are made to order and ship within a few business days. Everything is made to order, everyone’s orders are equal - first come first served - and everything is always in stock since we only stock materials (leathers, threads.)
Our base of templates now occupies a large wall in our shop and just keeps growing. Here’s what it looked like some time ago. What you see below is a bit under half of what we currently have:
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our products are either add-ons or, for the most part, replicas of original equipment. So designing them is easy - involves dissection of the original equipment, adjusting the overall shape and size for the type of materials we use (most factory shift boots are made with vinyl, which is much thinner than leather), and testing.
We’ve always been obsessed with quality and I’m blessed to have a team that’s as attentive to detail as I am personally.
Getting the product to a point where it’s marketable is a much bigger challenge. Pictures sell products, text doesn’t. So we do have to put a lot of effort into making sure the graphical representation of our products is attractive visually. Since we work directly with customers’ vehicles, that’s not always easy to accomplish - we have to rely on their photographic skills for the most part.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Back when we started in 1999/2000 websites were text mostly, with scarce pictures here and there. Our initial website was text-based, then again - it only showcased 3-4 products (that number has steadily grown to over 2500 today) and had a simple, static link to PayPal. Orders would come in via email, I would email (before we built an order queueing system) them to the chief seamstress along with shipping labels, she would make them and her son would ship them out every second day.
Over time we started adding different styles (pleats, quadruple thread, stripes, double racing stripes, etc), fabrics (carbon-fiber vinyl, Alcantara, etc.), and colors of both fabrics and thread. The possible combinations of products/styles/colors now easily reach hundreds of millions. Representing it adequately in the check-out process has been a continuous work of trial and error until we got to the point where we are today. Still not ideal, but close enough.
While you cannot exactly visualize your car’s interior with our products in the colors and styles you’ve chosen, we have a simplified generic diagram to choose the overall style and a more color-specific visual and textual description of which color will go where on each of the products you’re ordering. It was a lot of custom code and we’re proud to say it was all built in-house!
We started very, very small, so we didn’t need any external financing, and we have been enjoying a lot of word-of-mouth back in the early days when there wasn’t so much online chatter and noise. So we got a list of faithful customers returning to us with each car they switched to, as well as, in total, way over 100 thousand customers served with our products.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This one is easy. Quality. We’ve always been obsessed with quality and I’m blessed to have a team that’s as attentive to detail as I am personally.
Once we’ve had the product photographed with the quality we needed, the challenge was to get the word out. We’ve been big advertisers on several vehicle forums (keep in mind this is the pre-Facebook era), and we still are on some of them. We also advertise on Facebook, have a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, etc. We spend a lot on Google Ads, naturally.
We’ve been and still are, a company advertising digital-only, 100%. So over 2 decades, we’ve seen how online marketing evolved, how user groups moved from car forums to Facebook, gradually. I still think the car forums, bulletin boards, had a lot going for them. Sadly Facebook, with its incessant clutter and distractions, has made the world go from good to worse with how they’ve displaced car forums as a #1 source of information for auto enthusiasts worldwide.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
In today’s world we are all so distracted and inundated with ads and, more broadly speaking, chatter (noise) on the internet, that good thing are drowned in the ocean of garbage. If you have an advertising budget that you think is going to make your product known to your target audience, and if that budget was calculated using traditional approaches, most likely your budget is 10% of what it needs to be.
If you don’t have the extra resources to fill that gap either with funding, money, or your own time involved in creating an online presence to market the product with… think long and hard if the money you are planning to spend is money you can do without, because, unfortunately, chances are your message will be drowned in the pool.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our website was built a fully-in house, and so has our order processing system, due to very custom requirements no off-the-shelf software was satisfactory.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Doing this business has taught me a lot about understanding people, having the patience to even the most ridiculous demands. I still find myself letting people get under my skin, when the error is on their side, they won’t admit it and just keep making threats and demands. They thought they ordered X, they didn’t ask, they ordered Y, and they expect us to acknowledge it’s on us, and deal with it all the way.
Learning about the philosophy of Stoicism, studying Dissertations by Marcus Aurelius (the Roman Emperor, in case you’ve somehow missed this in school), has given me the perspective and insight on human behaviors and motivators that help me keep my cool in these situations.
On the other hand, each time this happens (fortunately, maybe just a few times a year) makes me appreciate, on a deeper level, customers who can admit their part in the misunderstanding and not stating outrageous demands. I try to treat everyone equally, but I do admit I still am willing to make concessions beyond what our store policies stipulate, to people who do understand their share of responsibility for whatever misunderstanding, misread or wrong assumption has been made about the item being ordered.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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