Episode 244 Featuring Alex Bond

Growing an eCommerce Store with Yong-Soo Chung

Growing an eCommerce Store with Yong-Soo Chung

Yong-Soo Chung is a multi hyphenate eCommerce professional to the core. He is a serial entrepreneur, podcaster, and the founder of multiple online retail stores and a third party logistics company called Growth Jet. His online retail stores include Spotted by Humphrey, which sells accessories and items for dogs, and Urban EDC, which sells boutique everyday carry items like wallets, knives, lighters, etc.

On this episode, Yong-Soo and I talk about his online retail stores, the value of catering to a niche market, some of the regulations required in third party logistics, and much more.

 

Urban EDC

Yong-Soo Chung: Sure. Yeah. So I started this company back in 2015 around October and really it came out of an in an area of need for me. Cause I was really interested in this, I guess this category of products called everyday carry gear.

And so the Urban EDC, the EDC stands for everyday carry. And it's stuff that you carry like your wallet, your watch, flashlight, maybe a bottle opener, your key chain tools. So things like that. And, you know, I was actually working at a blockchain company called ripple at the time. And I quit that. 

And then I started Urban EDC, you know, selling pocket knives and, you know, people thought I was kind of nuts going from Silicon Valley, hot blockchain startup to selling knives online, but that's exactly. What I did and yes, it's seven and a half years of, you know, growing this business, it's grown steadily. 

Interesting facts about Urban EDCs is that we don't do any paid advertising. And so I know a lot of people with DTC commerce brands rely heavily on driving traffic to their website through paid advertising, but we've actually grown it through partnerships and growing it through collaborations. 

And the main reason is because we, we've actually gotten, gotten banned on Facebook pretty fast, pretty early on because we're selling pocket knives. And so we had that growth channel kind of taken away from us. And so we have to find creative ways to you know, to find ways to drive traffic to the website and grow our business.

So I would say that's kind of a not your typical eCommerce growth story, I guess, but yeah, that's kind of we've been able to just grow and also we're pretty strong in our community. We make sure that our community members are, you know, really well taken care of, you know, we just launched a paid membership community as well, just doing pretty well. So, you know, we're always experimenting, trying different things to serve the community of everyday carry enthusiasts. 

Alex Bond: No, that's amazing. I think it's a really unique idea. And it sounds like you had to pivot in your marketing a little bit. And it's not always easy when you know, you're starting a business and you have all those different avenues. And then a couple of them start getting stripped away from you real quick. You got to be able to think a little creatively. 

Curating Collaborative Gems: How Yong-Soo Select and Showcase Unique Brand Collaborations on their Website

Alex Bond: Also creatively is these collaborations that you've talked about. I looked at your store and you've got like, you know, card, like. A deck of playing cards collaborated with another brand, and it's very well curated. So I'm interested in how you curate the products and those creators that you feature on the website. 

Yong-Soo Chung: Yeah. So ultimately it comes down to our customers. And so we want to make sure that we're bringing them products and we're bringing them an experience that they want. And so we get a lot of feedback from our customers on which type of makers we should work with.

You know, we ask about what types of products, I mean, we see the data also. So you know, what's great about selling a lot of different SKUs is that we have a lot of data on what types of products. That people buy. And so quite often having a lot of skus is not, not fun for operations, but there's a good side to that, which is you get to see a lot of data.

You know, we work with makers and a lot of these makers are, are high in demand. And so they go to these trade shows, night shows, and a lot of them are like lottery only. So you can't even buy it even if you wanted to, we are careful about who we work with. And so we do a lot of outbound ourselves in terms of like partnerships.

And so now we're actually starting to look beyond the makers within our everyday carry at knife community. And we're looking at brands that we can partner up with. And so we're going a little bit more outside of our own niche of everyday carry into a little more mainstream to bring more people, you know, exposed to our brand. And so that's kind of the next you know, phase of our growth. 

Alex Bond: No, that's great. And again, when I looked at these products, they look kind of like art pieces or sculptures more than they do, even like utility. I mean, obviously they are knives and bottle openers and multi tools that you can use. 

But they're the craftsmanship is definitely more of like an artisan than something you would get at like, I don't know, a flea market or, or like a truck stop or something like that. Was that like a conscientious choice in the sort of branding as having this unique artistry, high value elevated is kind of the word that I think of. 

Yong-Soo Chung: Yeah, no, you hit it right, right there, which is that we do want that elevated experience. And so. You know, when we came on the market, there was no shop that catered specifically to everyday carrier, but there were knife shops that honestly felt like, you know, website looked like it was built in the nineties.

You know, it was old school. And to be honest, the knife industry is very old school. You go to these trade shows and everyone is like 50 years old or whatever, like they're, they're just, they're old school. And so we wanted to kind of bring in a fresh perspective into, you know, into the entire industry and, and we also wanted to elevate that experience.

So you can like you mentioned, you know, everything that we bring in is, has a, both the functional aspects, but then we're really careful about the aesthetics. And how it fits into the rest of the shop. And so we're not just bringing in whatever sells like instantly, like we're trying to do a really good job of like everything has to go together.

So if you go to the shop and you buy like 10 things from the shop, like, you know, we're trying to make all of those things work together as a kit. So, yeah we're pretty careful about what we bring in and how we position each product. And so you can even notice like on the website, we don't have the cents, you know. 

So it's not like 9 at 99 cents. We just say 10 or we say 9. And that's very deliberate because it, you know, we don't want to be 995. Like that, that kind of has a connotation of like, I don't know, it's like almost like a cheap deal to it as a deal. And so that's everything that we do is very deliberate in that in that respect that we don't want, we want it to feel like it's, you're entering a little bit of like a premium experience. And so yeah, you're absolutely right. 

How This Simple Idea Transformed into a Multi-Million Dollar eCommerce Store in Just Seven Years

Alex Bond: I'm very interested in what some of the other techniques that you've implemented to grow this brand from just a simple idea to what you've said is a multi million dollar ecommerce store over the last, you know, seven, eight years. 

Yong-Soo Chung: We are careful about our language and our messaging. You know, we want to make sure that whatever we bring in, it's stuff that you can't really find anywhere else. And so, you know, we don't have any products on Amazon, you can't easily just Google something that we sell and find somewhere else for a cheaper price. Like it's like our site, our shop is the destination if you're an EDC enthusiast.

And like, this is it. Like you finally found your spot if you're an EDC gear head. Right. So that's the feeling that we want is, Hey, this is for you. Like, and honestly, if you're not into EDC, then no, like you're not, you know, this is not for you. Right. But if you're into the type of gear that this community really likes, then you quickly realize that like, this is the best job.

You know, for to kind of like, it's that gear, it's that you have and so that's, that's really what we're going after is like the one offer kind of I guess you could call them a more like entry level products. But then, we sell some custom knives. I could go up to like a thousand dollars, right?

And so we want to have products that will introduce you to certain price categories, but then you know, if you want to, you can level up into these higher price categories. And so we kind of mix and match those into our gear drops. So gear drops, we have them every Wednesday at 12 PM Pacific time.

And so that's when we release all of our products. It kind of creates this frenzy because. A lot of that stuff sells out really fast. You know, we've got customers setting alarm clocks to try to score some of these items and they get really upset if they miss it. And so it's kind of, it's almost like part of that thrill to be like, oh, I got this item.

Like, you know, I was finally able to get one. So we wanted to like, make sure that kind of experiences is, it's almost like fun to like, it's not just about product, but it's about the experience of like being able to get something that you couldn't get for a while. And so that's all built into this whole brand, you know, branding aspects.

 

Spotted by Humphrey

Alex Bond: Now tell me about the other brand that the other store that's a little similar again, kind of a niche market Spotted by Humphrey. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Yong-Soo Chung: Yeah. So Spotted by Humphrey was born out of, so what's funny is we brought home a French Bulldog in 2017. We just started posting some photos and videos online on Instagram, and some of his videos just went viral. And this is during a time when Instagram was really pushing for videos. So they had just gone from, you know, photos only to now starting to show videos.

And so like a couple of our videos, you know, caught on fire basically in the algorithm, whatever. And it just took off and his following grew very quickly. So now he's got 150,000 followers across TikTok and Instagram. My wife is actually the one who's, who's managing I guess it's just kind of the momager our dog.

And she runs our eCommerce shop spotted by Humphreys. The premise there is that Humphrey is our dog and he likes to dress up whatever, you know, we have these harnesses and leashes and people ask, Hey, where can I get those instead of using like an Amazon affiliate link?

Plus Amazon doesn't have, they have all the crappy stuff. We bring in all the really like good stuff from overseas, like a lot of products from Korea and Japan and, and those products are, you know, not easy to find. So similar concept to Urban EDC, to be honest with you, but it's catered towards the dog. If you look at it, the websites are very different.

So it's the front facing part of both e commerce shops are very different, but the backend is actually really similar because of the fulfillment and all that stuff. We decided, Hey, it'd be nice. You know, we already have the infrastructure for it. And so let's start another Shopify site to cater towards dog owners instead of EDC gear enthusiasts.That's kind of what happened with Spotted by Humphrey.

You know, we were invited down to LA. It's for Shopify and they, we've got an entire like film crew, it was like 10 people and there's an entire set and my wife and Humphrey were on this professional set and literally like Shopify or this film crew had filmed a commercial for Google the week before that. And so, it's a pretty big deal. I mean, honestly, like it's been a lot of fun just with these experiences that you know, that we get to be a part of. 

Alex Bond: And that's cool. That feels like a very personal project to you. You know, you named it after your dog. It's got that sort of, you know, authenticity to it. And I think that's really cool. 

Now to kind of like talk about both of these companies collectively, you mentioned their similarities, their differences. I'd like to start with the choice in making them both kind of like niche markets and in my opinion, I feel like the dog owners and people want to dress up their dogs thing can be even more niche than EDC.

For example, I'd never even heard of EDC, but I know swaths of people who are knife collectors, wallet collectors, that sort of stuff, but still niche was that a conscientious decision to make both of these brands specifically nature? That was just something that happened to happen. 

Yong-Soo Chung: I think that it's important to start with a niche that is serving an audience, a community, basically. And so the whole thing is you know, I have this framework called the MAPS framework. MAPS. 

And so M stands for mindset, A is audience, P is product and S is scale. The audience portion of it, you really need to hone in on who you're serving. And honestly, like the more specific you can get in the beginning, the better.

And so the reason why that is because people are really passionate about this really like, like, I don't know this, nerdier you get with your niche, like the deeper you get, the more passionate these people are. It's just the fact. 

And so when you find that niche that, that is like underserved and people are so passionate about it, you know, they will really support you from, from the beginning. And they'll be excited about your brand. They'll be excited to support you because they're like, wow, this brand is like, talking to me, and there's only like a few of us here. 

And so that level of passion can carry you a long way, especially in the beginning. Now, as you grow, you know, you don't want to be limited to that one really specific niche. And so you start to broaden out a tiny bit, right? 

And so you might lose a few of your early supporters who are like super fans, like very, very early. Then the goal is that the rest of your growth comes from these other, you know, slightly adjacent niches that are you know, bringing in other people.

So just as an example, like Humphrey is a French Bulldog, right? So a lot of French Bulldog owners follow Humphrey and they love everything that we buy is. It's kind of catered towards that French Bulldog branding, right? Or I guess sizes too, sizes and the clothing and stuff. 

And so we start there, but then what we notice is like, for example, Corgis, Corgi owners are also really into dressing up their dogs and they really take care of their dogs. And so you can kind of get into the Corgi market. You know, the Frenchie owners might be like it's not really like our market, but hey, you're expanding, right? Slightly. 

And so it's kind of like you go, you know, slowly, slowly you expand, but in the beginning you really want to focus on that really specific niche so that you can get those passionate early supporters.

Alex Bond: No, I appreciate you that explaining it that to me, you know, because I've talked to those people about the niche market, but the explanation of it feeling so much more personable is extremely insightful and valid and makes a lot of sense in terms of the guts of those stores. 

 

Similarities and Key Differences of Running Two Distinct Online Stores

Alex Bond: So you mentioned on the surface, they can be very different. But on the backend, they're actually really similar. I'm curious what the main differences and how these two online stores have to be run. 

Yong-Soo Chung: For the most part on the front end, I mean, you just have the website and you have. Things like product photos, you know, you got to upload the photos and you're going to write up the product descriptions and then customer support emails, right?

But then on the back end, most of the fulfillment aspect of it, you know, the labeling of products and all that stuff is all pretty much the same. What we did is, well, so for Urban EDC launched that in 2015, we were using a 3PL. That did all that for us. 

And you, I did a lot of research on that and found that to be honest, I found the service that had the highest, most glowing reviews. But then what I realized is like that company was actually pretty bad. Like literally like we had items stolen. Like we had a customer email me and he said, Hey, is this a joke? I just got an empty box. 

And I'm like, what? Oh my gosh. Sorry to hear that. Yeah. And so basically what had happened was the person that was picking and packing our order that day. It was his last day at that company, and he just took the knife out the box and then shipped the empty box to our customer. 

And so things like that were happening. When I started to see that, I kind of thought, Hey, the bar is pretty low here. Like, you know, maybe we could do this better. And so we decided to bring it in-house. And then Spotted by Humphrey launched in 2018. And so we had two brands under underneath our umbrella. 

You know, we were in this kind of like co working space, but it was like in a warehouse. It was a, it's a kind of a unique setup, but we had a lot of e commerce brands come to us and say, Hey, by the way, who's doing your shipping? Cause shipping is a big pain point for us. 

And so we just decided to privately take on a few clients. And then from there you know, we have paying clients before. We even had a website or a brand name. But from that I grew growth jet, who, which is our climate neutral certified third party logistics company.

And so that launched in 2019. And so it just kind of naturally happened that way, but yeah, we're just moving to a 39,000 square foot warehouse, we are just firing on all cylinders, so yeah, and that's kind of a story of like how we shared resources on the backend. And then capitalize on that, and then we got brands coming in asking us to help them with fulfillment. And then we just kind of grew from there. 

The Importance of Finding the Right 3PL Partner

Alex Bond: And I imagine that wasn't the only experience that led to you creating your own 3PL provider, but it shows a lot of guts to kind of be like, I feel like this is a market that's being underserved and grow that from there and your opinion for other people who are looking at 3PL partners. Why is it so important to find the right one? 

Yong-Soo Chung: Yeah. You know, the 3PL industry is really interesting because there's a lot of misinformation out there. It's not easy because the 3PL specialize in different areas. So each of them have like different areas, especially. 

So like, for example, you know, if you're selling food products, right? So CPG companies, you know, you might need a warehouse that is room temperature, like all year round. Like you can't have a warehouse. That's going to be like really hot because maybe your food's going to spoil or whatever.

And then there's other specialties, maybe you specialize in like apparel. So it's like really easy to do. Like you buy the boxes for stories, storing all these skews and all that stuff. But basically there's kind of like two different models of repeals and one is like there's like I guess a middleman.

And so you can think of like Shopify fulfillment network as one of these, which I think they actually shut down recently, but or they sold flex for, I think, but anyways they are a middleman. So what they do is they contact individual warehouse operators like us. And they'll say, Hey you know, we have a client.

Do you want to be one of their warehouses? And so what they'll do is they're like kind of a middleman where they kind of I guess they work with a lot of other warehouses. And so they try to create this cohesive experience for the brands. But what ends up happening is because Shopify or whoever this middleman is, is not the, the people who are actually doing the execution of the work.

There is no incentive for 3PLs to help them out because you know, 3PLs have their own, own clients, right? And so they want to make sure that they want to serve their clients, but then. They have this like secondary orders coming through from this middleman and like, it's almost like a wholesale model.

Like they're getting orders from a middleman and they're getting paid way less for them. And so they want to make sure that their own clients are taken care of first. And so you basically get like very low level of service, which is very common in the 3PO industry. You know, a lot of these middleman providers only have software.

And so what they'll do is they'll build a really nice software, but then they will actually have the operational, you know, execution part of it on their own. And so trying to convince warehouses to, really take care of their own customers. Like it's a tough battle, I would say.

And so what I typically recommend is like go directly to the warehouse, find a 3PL that owns, operates the manpower to actually be able to get your orders out on time, you know, ask a lot of questions that are pertinent to your specific brand. So if you have any special requirements, like, are you shipping glass, for example, right?

Do you have the right dunnage or whatever, like packaging materials? And so, yeah, I mean, I would say definitely like ask around a lot to find the right 3PL, but it's. What I would say is definitely avoid these, these middlemen companies where you, you're going to get thrown around a little bit, like you're going to get bad service. 

And the service portion is really what we're really trying to do is provide really good service because it doesn't really exist in this space, which is kind of crazy to me, but that's just kind of how the space has evolved. 

GrowthJet: Pioneering Climate Neutrality in the 3PL Industry

Alex Bond: You've also announced that essentially GrowthJet is the first climate neutral certified 3PL provider. Can you tell me a little bit about that and some of the regulations you've had to implement to have that achievement?

Yong-Soo Chung: We are actually the first climate neutral certified 3PL company in the world. And it's a nonprofit, and it's a very reputable company and we have to offset all of our current footprint. 

And so we do the measurement, we have reduction goals, and then we have the actual offsets that we have to purchase. And so we go to the marketplace and the climate control will give you a list of pre approved, you know, places where you can buy carbon offsets.

And so you can't just go out and buy whatever carbon offsets you find. You have to go from an approved list that they've edited themselves. And so you go ahead on that marketplace and you buy the carbon offsets. And then after they approve that, then you're good to go. Yeah. I mean, we wanted to be climate neutral certified because we felt that the industry was quite wasteful.

And I always believe that each company should have a mission that's bigger than yours than the company or the employees. And like that really attracts the right partnerships and attracts the right employees. And so what we've found is like that the brands that come to us are very conscious about packaging materials.

They love that we are climate neutral certified and that we care about the planet. And so it's actually become an advantage for us in a lot of ways when we work with brands that are value aligned in this matter. So, yeah, I mean, it's an interesting area, but I feel like it's going to continue to get more, I guess attention and more brands are going to jump on this.

And yeah, we just want it to be kind of the pioneers in the space. So yeah, I'm like, really proud that we are climate neutral certified and the partners that are choosing to work with us are also like, you know, they're also pioneers. So yeah, it's been a phenomenal journey for us. 

Alex Bond
Host
Alex Bond

Meet Alex Bond—a seasoned multimedia producer with experience in television, music, podcasts, music videos, and advertising. Alex is a creative problem solver with a track record of overseeing high-quality media productions. He's a co-founder of the music production company Too Indecent, and he also hosted the podcast "Get in the Herd," which was voted "Best Local Podcast of 2020" by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, USA.

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