Episode 251 Featuring Alex Bond

Quality Control and Branding with John Roman

Quality Control and Branding with John Roman

John Roman is the CEO and Co-Founder of BattlBox, a monthly subscription service for receiving hand-picked outdoor, survival, EDC gear from some of the most innovative companies around. John is an experienced Executive and Board Member with a demonstrated history of working in both the consumer goods and technology industry. He's renowned as a strong sales and marketing professional who is skilled in both D2C and B2B strategy.

On this episode, John and I discuss the importance of quality control, subscription based programs, the value in quality branding, and much more.


What is BattlBox

John Roman: So Battlbox is an adventure gear, outdoor brand, everything from think tents and fire starters to knives. Literally, if you're, if you're going into the great outdoors, that's, that' the product we're sending you.

Alex Bond: Very cool. And my understanding, this is based on like a monthly subscription model, right? Where people pay a certain fee every month and they get a specific box every month, depending on kind of the tiered system that they're at. Is that accurate? 

John Roman: Yeah. So about, you know, a little bit greater than 90 percent of our revenue comes from the subscription box. We call the boxes missions. We just shipped out as of today. We're We're finalizing our 101st. So 101 missions, each one being a month. 

And yeah, so they're tiered. We have four levels, basic, advanced, pro, and pro plus, starting at 35 a month, ending up at 170. All in with shipping and sales tax, you're looking at about 200. And they stack on top of each other. So if you get the top tier box, You're getting everything that's in the lower boxes as well as additional product. 

Alex Bond: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. I think that's a smart move. A hundred boxes, a hundred months. I mean, that's pretty cool. So congratulations to you, man.

John Roman: Thank you. And we're celebrating it in two weeks with, I don't know if we discussed it, all of it, the whole tank event or anything, but we can talk about that if you want. 

Alex Bond: No, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Tell me about that event. That sounds very interesting. 

John Roman: Yeah. So the 100th box was, we shipped it out in the beginning of June and we literally put five golden tickets randomly in the boxes. Think legitimate Willy Wonka style. So if you got a golden ticket. It's exactly that we're flying you and meeting you out. 

We're in Georgia, but we're going to, or some of the teams in Georgia, we're pretty remote, but we're going to meet them in Texas. So fly them out of Texas, set up shop there. Then the next morning, we're all going to get on a bus. Drive out about two and a half hours in the rural Texas and we're gonna put each of the five golden ticket winners contestants. 

Each of them in and a legitimate live World War two tank and they're gonna take the tank. They're actually gonna shoot fire the tank downrange at a target and if they hit the target, we're going to give them a hundred thousand dollars.

Battlbox's Quality Assurance and Product Vetting Process

Alex Bond: So I wanted to talk about Battlbox and essentially first question I really have for you is that you and the company guarantee the quality, right? Of the products that go into each box. So I'm curious what that product vetting process looks like for you guys. 

John Roman: Oh man, it is a process and it's a process by design because if we're putting something in the box, we have to stand behind it. It's a big process. So it starts off with top of funnel potential items. 

So they come in one of several different ways one we have a internal procurement team and people that aren't in that department still wear that hat. We're always all looking for cool new products So that's top of funnel for new products. Second is actually customer feedback. So we have a lot of ways for customers to submit product ideas and products They run across that they think should be in the box.

And then the third is just organic on our website, where if you're a vendor, you have a cool product, you can submit it to us. Once that process starts and we're like, okay, this is a potential item. We're getting several samples of it. Sample is going to operations. A sample is going to procurement. And a sample is going to Brandon Curran, which is the face of Battlbox.

And next step is him testing it. He's actually going to test it, put it to use, see how it holds up, if it's of quality, and that serves two purposes. One, we're shooting that as content, which is great content, us testing products. Second of all, if it passes that test, then, okay, it potentially has a stamp of approval on, to be a Battlbox item.

But then, we have to then figure out the economics does. Can we make it make financial sense with with the manufacturer with the vendor? And if so, it then goes to our procurement panel, which is nine people and we review the item, not the economics, just the actual item. And Brandon talks about testing it.

And if literally two or more people say no, the item's just done. It's out. So two people, no questions asked. You obviously want to provide a reason why you're saying no to try to make the team better on items we're procuring and testing, but two items, no questions asked. The item is done dead in the water. 

The cool thing about the procurement team panel that does that voting, we meet once a week, it's a diverse throughout, throughout our company. So you have people in their early twenties, you have people in their early fifties. 

You have the full, you have some people that are warehouse people, you have some people that are marketing people, people that have been in the military, you have civilians, you have the whole gambit of potential demographics in that.

And we selected those nine by design. We wanted a very diverse, we have both genders in there. It's diverse. So we're really trying to find, we're trying to find a reason. For two people who did not like the item, because if, if we can get past that, then there's a strong possibility that our customers are going to like it too.

Fostering Community and Quality Retention: The Power of Customer Feedback and Product Testing in Battlbox's Marketing Strategy

Alex Bond: That sounds very in depth. And frankly, the thing that sticks out to me is the customer feedback and the product testing with, you know, your poster boy branded. And I think that that's a really good idea for multiple reasons, but the one that jumps out is it's essentially quality retention marketing, where if I'm a customer of BattleBox.

I feel seen and I feel heard. I'm going to probably stay with you for a really long time, especially even if my product isn't picked, but they're testing my product and I can watch a YouTube video of it. I feel like I'm part of a community more than just like paying money for something. Is that part of the goal? Am I understanding that correctly? 

John Roman: Yeah. I mean, it's a hundred percent that it is all about, and you know, you and I were speaking earlier, we lead all of our decisions. We take two things into consideration. All business decisions, how does it affect content and how does it affect community?

And that community aspect is very, very important to us. So we, every single month in each mission, one of the requirements are at least one of the items in the box has to be a customer referred recommended item has to be. 

And then one of the items also has to be a staff recommended item So it really is marrying both the battlebox team the battlebox customers everybody together We're all kind of in it together to ensure there's you know each box is good. 

Alex Bond: And that way when you release the videos after the fact people can be like, oh, that customer product was my favorite. So I know I'm in the right community of people or vice versa, if it was a staff item, like, oh, I trust these guys even more because they were the ones that recommended this item.

The Art of Curating Original Battlbox Experiences for Customers Month after Month

Alex Bond: I am curious now how you curate the boxes to ensure that customers get an original box each month. Because if I got an axe this month, if I got like a little hatchet or something like that this month, that means they can't get one next month and probably shouldn't for the next two or three months.

So I'm curious how you kind of keep changing the wheels enough to make sure that people are getting something original that they can look forward to every single month. 

John Roman: Yeah, it's a challenge. So everybody, you know, your first month, you're choosing a past box. After that, you fall in line with the upcoming current mission that everybody gets the exact same box, obviously there's tier levels, but it's still identical. 

It's a challenge because to your point, we sent a hatchet out in, in July. No, we can't send it out again in October, November. We probably can't send it out again in July of next year. We really, really, really make sure we spread items out. Items aren't too similar. I think in repeat items. In the eight plus years we've been doing this. 

I think we've repeated now four items. But they were all items that if you were using the first one. First of all, you'd have to be around six years ago to have to gotten both which which is possible there's a couple hundred people that have been with us the entire time but if you have been with us the whole time and you did get the first one if you used it at all in moderate use. 

Over the last six or seven years it was time for another one anyway. We have almost like a template where we know certain types of items in categories, once they're placed in a box, they can't appear in another, depending on the product, another 6 months, 12 months, sometimes 18 months. 

So you take some things, there's a large amount of books, educational books for the outdoors, for camping, for adventure, for prepping, for anything that kind of in our, you know, in our wheelhouse, you know, it's simply as gardening is even in the mix, but we can't send a book every month.

So we have certain rules like books, for example, we're not going to do more than two in a year, certain types of knives, not a certain amount, the amount of fire starters, like it's a very ironed out process because you don't want people to get repeat, similar items. Because it's then it takes away from the experience and it's something we're constantly improving and refining the process.

And unfortunately, a lot of times we can't think of anything, everything and we don't think of something. And then, you know, we make that mistake. So then we put it. a new process in place. Okay, well, we're now going to go 24 months between these. It's a constantly learning evolving process. 

Alex Bond: I think part of the strength in that is that y'all are the ones doing the research. So in my estimation, I didn't even really think about this until just now. Part of the price of admission to someone who's paying for these boxes is I don't have to put forth the The minutes to hours to days of research to find out which knife I want. I mean, that, that, that's a huge community in and of itself of just like knives.

So if I could pay y'all, you know, 60 bucks a month to essentially do all that research for me and tell me this is the best one, that's probably worth its weight in gold, right? I mean, that's part of the intention. 

John Roman: Yeah. And that's one of the value adds is that we're testing, we're procuring, we're curating this. The interesting piece of it is that trending the best way to think of this. If you look at it for face value, you know, our average, so 45 percent of our customer base is in the pro plus it's the 170 plus sales tax, 200. 

So when you look at that box as an example, on average, if a customer is going to source those products individually and buy them for themselves, probably worth about 350. So there's a significant like value add in product value. They can even not like one of the items, sell it and still be ahead of the game. 

You have some people that literally just buy the box and sell some of it to pay for the box, but that's a huge value add, but we never lead with that at all. Like it's never, we make that that's so far down the, the value propositions we even talk about because we don't want it to be about the product.

We want it to be about things like you just described, right? We want customers to see the value in, Oh, they're actually testing and procuring and curating the right stuff for us. Right. There's this Facebook community of. You know, 10,000 of us that can jump in and have any discussions in the world.

There's a buy sell trade group that, that we're a part of there's things like the golden tickets and shooting a tank and winning 100, 000. We want to provide the value and put enough value in the additional perks outside of the product. Because if we can deliver that and make the extra value in the box, just icing on the cake, it's difficult to execute, but if we can continue to execute, it puts us in an amazing spot.

From Board Member to CEO: A Remarkable Journey of Leadership and Growth at Battlbox

Alex Bond: I'm curious about your journey personally, in terms of working with Battlbox, because to my knowledge, you essentially started as a board member. And a marketing officer, and I want to say eight years time you became the CEO. So I'm curious how you were able to climb that ladder. 

John Roman: Yeah, if you would have asked me in 2015, if this is what I'd be doing for a living, I would 100 percent say there's no chance. In early 2015, I was still in my previous career, which was B2B sales. I was building sales teams for initially small business and then sales teams in middle and then enterprise level. 

And I had done, you know, moderately successful and I was investing in startup companies that were coming across my desk, whether it was network, old friends, circles, et cetera, heard about Battlbox and quickly, quickly got involved in the expectations were very little.

It was maybe just another set of eyes on things, very limited, you know, maybe a few hours a month of providing just value add and, and then, you know, the board to have some kind of control over my investment. And it just, it blew up fast forward in the second half of 2015, and I still have my full time job or call it 50, 60 hours a week.

And then Battlbox was taking just as much time, so I wasn't sleeping. It had to make a decision. And it was it became abundantly clear. So launched in February, 2015, the first year we did about four and a half million in revenue, which, which was a huge liftoff. And in about April of 2016, looking at our, our run rate, we were going to hit eight figures.

If we had the right focus, so I just jumped in full time. So initially, you know, it was limited capacity, but I quickly found that the sales and the marketing and the technology piece and the customer service piece were kind of in my wheelhouse and I was learning it fairly quickly. I didn't understand the procurement side and I didn't understand the shipping side.

And I didn't understand the finance side, but I understood all the other aspects of the business. So it just made sense at that point in April, 2016, is just to join full time. The run rate of battle box was equivalent to the current revenue of the startup I was with. So it just, I have fake equity over here.

I have real equity here and I can't do both anymore. So yeah, jumped into it and took the role of CMO. And we did that through the Netflix TV show and we had an exit which wasn't final I'll keep going on this in october 2021. We were acquired by a company called emerge They're a spack out of Toronto.

The reason that happened is there were when I initially, there were four of us that were partners that had the company when I came on board full time one of the first things I was, it was agreed that I was going to do was I was going to structure and negotiate a buyout of one of the four partners to get us down to three. Completed that there were three of us left on myself, Patrick and Daniel and Daniel. He eventually lost interested in the passion anymore. 

We had really two options. We had one by by him out. And he had a, he had the lion share the equity battle box was his idea. He came up with the name and the logo and the concept. So he had a big chunk of equity and, you know, he wanted this multiplier off which was fair, but it's not something that a small business, myself and Patrick, the other two people could justify one finding the money to like, it's just a big risk with a six year pay.

So we looked for a strategic partner to acquire us that we thought would be a good partner to grow with. And that's where we found and emerge. So it accomplished a few things. One, it allowed us to put some money in our pocket. It allowed Daniel to retire and get out of the business. And we thought it was, you know, great partner to try to take it to the next level and turn it into a hundred million dollar company. 

So at the time of acquisition is when Daniel retired and I moved into the CEO role. To no fault of emerge, it just ended up not being a fit. Publicly traded. We know what the markets did over the past couple of years. You know, market caps went down, debt rates went up. They were just in a interesting spot. So it eventually made sense for us to reacquire Battlbox and take it private again, which we did in April of this year, it's been a journey. 

Alex Bond: Yeah, man, absolutely. And I was looking through your history a little bit and saw that you were previously the CEO of something that was kind of a similar idea to Battlbox. That's called the carnivore club where it was, you know, monthly subscription, except it was meat instead of like survival outdoor gear. 

So I'm curious, John, if that kind of prepared you for this job in the CEO position, or even the CMO position more specifically, I'm curious, what's some of the things that you've learned in that job or mistakes you made in that job that you were able to take with you into your current role?

John Roman: Sure. So carnivore club club, it was a previous role, but it was also happening at the same time as this. So carnivore club was is exactly what we described. It's a monthly artisanal meats, salamis, prosciutto, stuff like that. It's a shelf stable meets battle box actually acquired the brand it was a toronto based company older than battle box But we acquired it on in july 2019.

Alex Bond: That's amazing because you knew the guts so you were like I know that this is a good purchase because I was there. 

John Roman: So we purchased that and we knew that with our team our marketing team our content team everything for the most part, with a few exceptions, being in house. We knew we could, we could bring that in.

They had some talent, talent, people wise, that we wanted to join the team. We saw synergies. So we made that acquisition, and then I led that acquisition and oversaw it. But I don't know if it necessarily took, if there were any learnings from it that helped, helped me today. 

Ultimately, when we sold the business, we sold Battlbox and Carnivore Club both back, not both back, both to Emerge. Which two months ago in April, when we bought it back, we bought Battlbox back, but they kept Carnivore Club. So it's been a weird passing of hands and changing things. 

Exploring the Success of Monthly Subscription Programs in the Modern Era

Alex Bond: I'm curious why you think specifically monthly subscription based programs like Battlbox or carnivore club, or, you know, most famously to my ears, like the dollar shave club or something like that. Why are they so lucrative? Is it the community aspect? Is it the fact that people can kind of come in and out as much as they want to? I mean, why is this something that has been so popular and lucrative in the last, I'd say four or five years? 

John Roman: Yeah. So the barrier to entry is is interesting at a at surface level It seems like it's very low In reality to get to a certain point in size and growth and and relative success The barrier to entry is very very difficult.

I think you're spot on building building the community piece Our secret sauce is the content and community. That's what separated us from from everybody else it's difficult and it's lucrative, but like in a post COVID world, most subscription boxes, if you will, they're all hurting, right?

I'd say the average one is down maybe 30, 40 percent year over year in size. So they took a big hit. Subscription boxes typically are discretionary spending, right? So it's so on the need want scale. It's definitely on the want side, not the need side. So you have to have some separation.

You know, we look at like Dollar Shave Club. I think some of that just like some of us was timing. They were, you know, a pioneer in the concept of it's mutually beneficial to have the subscription in their sense, right? You and I don't want to have to worry about it. Always getting razors and they're gonna just send them to us every month and it really helps both sides, right?

We're giving them revenue, but they're making our lives easier I think it's a difficult time just across the board for subscription boxes If if you are on that the want side of the need want scale I think you have to provide a lot of additional value and you need to focus on content focus on community focus on value add outside of what's What's coming in the box. I think it's difficult, actually. 

Alex Bond: Because it's not all tangible. It's not it can't all be placed on a dollar value, right? 

John Roman: Because when because as soon as you take are going in that direction, you're just commoditizing yourself. And it's not it's not fun. 

Alex Bond: I think it's kind of clear how these brands see themselves when it's called the Dollar Shave Club or Carnivore Club. I mean, those are places where communities come together. I don't think that's just like a cool sounding name you know. 

John Roman: Dollar Shave Club have fanatic customers that are raving about the brand, but also, I mean those guys, when it comes to video content, I mean, they put out some amazing content that had major virality.

Alex Bond: And I want to talk about yours because that's a major part of your marketing and your plan as well. Before we get there, I did want to ask about subscription programs as a whole, if you see their popularity growing or dwindling.

John Roman: I was actually reading a report this morning. So subsummit, it's a subscription conference. And they're looking at all subscriptions. So think subscription box, think subscribe and save membership streaming. The whole, the whole gambit of, you know, reoccurring revenue. And they had the this year there'll be a 200 billion in subscription revenue, but by 2027, it's going to be over a trillion. So it's definitely growing.

I think you look at the streaming subsection right now, and they're all starting to be, they, they killed the cable guys that we all were against and now they're starting to behave in a similar manner. They're all starting to jack up their rates and you're seeing like there was that, hey, let's cut the cord and get streaming services because it's better and more efficient and more affordable.

And now there's so many different streaming services. People have multiple sometimes. And the cost is just going back up to where it was on the cable side. I think that's probably a big chunk of that, you know, soon to be a few years trillion dollar subscription industry. You look at Amazon Prime. That's a subscription, right?

64 percent of U.S. households have it, which is wild that they've had that much penetration. And there's a bunch of others that are, you know, think Walmart plus their service 24 percent of U.S. households have that, which is wild to me. So that's a big chunk of it. When you're looking at the other aspects of it, I think it's a big chunk of it is maybe subscribe and save, right?

So something like whether it's razors or something you're using on a reoccurring basis to just make sense to subscribe and then on the the far end of it, where the battle boxes of the world or the pip sticks or other subscriptions, it's creating something else, whether it's community additional value add and building that community or building that content, which in turn builds community is is where you can excel.

You look at, like the reverse engineer of it. We were a brand that then focused on content and community. Look at the flip side. The best example is Mr. Beast, right? He didn't have a product. He just put out cool content and build a amazing community and grew it astronomically, and then he dumped brands in.

And he jumped, dropped feastables in there and, you know, his beast burgers and both were instant overnight successes doing crazy amounts of revenue because of that content and community that he had built. It's interesting. I think in that far end of this growing revenue is the discretionary income where consumer behavior is at a point where that discretionary income you want to buy from a brand you connect with, right? That you feel some kind of connection with. And that's where we're excelling currently. 

Alex Bond: And something that I hear you say, John, is with the increased potential revenue from subscription based programs, at least in the streaming analogy, the problem with these streaming networks is that they don't make money. Everyone is dumped is spending money to keep up with the Joneses while Netflix is the only one making money. 

So after a while, the same thing happened with cable. And they were forced to cannibalize each other, which is what's going to happen with these streaming platforms. But in your example, since there is so much money to still be made, that cannibalizing process.

It sounds like from what I'm hearing you say won't be a necessity in these subscription based programs where Dollar Shave Club is all the way up here, we're down here, we're not making money, so they need to buy us from what I'm hearing you say that won't need to happen because it's an industry that's just generating more and more revenue, not less and less.

John Roman: Yeah, I think that's accurate. I think there will be some consolidation among among subscriptions. We've spoken to a few of our competitors through the years, we've acquired some, I think there will always be some consolidation, but to your point, it is growing at such a rapid rate, and so many brands are offering some sort of membership or subscription. I think there's still enough cake for everybody at the moment. 

The Influence of Niche Communities on Subscription Models

Alex Bond: One of my last questions, I got only like a couple more. When it comes to subscription models in general, does it help to be more niche or niche? I think that most of these programs, you know I have other other friends and people who did some similar things, but it's kind of like Geek or nerd culture where you get specific, I don't know, comic books or figurines and stuff like that, depending on cartoons and that sort of stuff. I'm curious if this sort of subscription model only works for niche communities.

John Roman: I think you can move the needle and it's easier to build community and offer that subscription service to a niche industry and it allows you to fully grab that niche, but you look at you look at some of the female subscription boxes, the fabfit finds where they have hundreds of thousands of active subscribers. 

And, you know, Birchbox, which at one point had a billion dollar valuation, you know, they were sent there. It was a niche. It was basically any woman that likes any kind of health care products or beauty products. So there can be success outside of it, but it's I don't know. I think I think either either or. 

I think when you're going larger It might be more difficult because how do you get messaging spread across so many different types of people. Probably is a little bit of a challenge while we're targeted on a very specific niche of people that like to get outdoors. Yeah, I think you could do both. I think they both have their own unique challenges. 

Alex Bond
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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