Markets fluctuate and trends come and go but some principles of the business world are here to stay. Founders and leaders need to know and cannot ignore the vital differences between success and failure. In her new book, Business Growth Do’s and Absolute Don’ts, Carolyn Lowe shares her most valuable takeaways from nearly three decades of experience.
The book aims to bridge the gap between brand and customer by showing you how to define your core values and assure the right people are representing your company. With imperative insight on growing your Amazon or online business, you’ll learn the e-commerce metrics that truly matter to maximize profit and fast-track your way to unrivaled growth.
Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Carolyn Lowe, author of Business Growth Do’s and Absolute Don’ts: Applied Wisdom From My Work with Dell, Costco, Amazon and Multiple Startups. Carolyne, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Thanks for having me, Drew.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off! Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Yes, I will try to make it brief, I’ll only go back 20 years. 20 years ago, Dell recruited me to come work in 1999 in their direct marketing division. This was when people were buying their first home computer in 1999. We were a small, little division of Dell at the time and then over the years, grow to an eight billion-dollar division. I really loved e-commerce and consumer marketing and so, went on and did that not just for Dell— I ran a variety of different divisions within Dell— but then I really went back and determined I really loved when we were small and scrappy and we were a 40-person department.
I didn’t love it when we were 150-person department, so went to work after that for a couple of companies but then I landed in 2014 at a small mom and baby company. It was about just a few million-dollar business and really loved it. I was their e-commerce and Amazon person, a team of one, and really loved that emerging business.
A year after that, I decided to do this for a variety of other companies and so I founded ROI Swift in 2015 to really help emerging brands grow. I feel like just because you don’t have the budget of a Nike, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get the experts that Nike can afford to pay. That’s when I started ROI Swift in 2015, about six years ago. Our goal is to grow about a thousand emerging brands by 2030. I’ve got about 800 more to go till retirement.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you mentioned you’ve been in the space for a while now. Why was now the time to share the stories in the book? Was there something inspiring out there for you? Or did COVID just leave a lot of time on your plate? Or did enough people come up to you and said, “Carolyn, you need to spread the word via a book”?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: That’s a great question, Drew. Actually, I’d been on a guest on a variety of podcasts and I think it was one from Sharkpreneur (the guys from Shark Tank) and they said, “You should write a book” and everybody kept telling me, “You should write a book”
Eventually, I did. I kept getting the same questions over and over and I said, I wonder if I can help more people by writing this book because it will take me forever to have these conversations one-on-one with all of these brands. I was hoping to help more people by writing the book and sharing it with more people, more than I could just do with one-on-one conversations.
Drew Appelbaum: When you said, “Okay, I’ve got the idea, I have all these expertise. I’m going to write this book,” was there anything during the writing process that maybe by doing some more research or just by digging deep that you just learned a little bit more on? Did you come to have any major breakthroughs on some subjects that were unexpected?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: That’s a great question. The more that I thought about it, the more experiences came back over the last 20 years, and the more that I realized how important the customer and the customer journey is. The book is a little bit— it really talks about your company and your core values and your customers and how to do it right from the beginning.
A lot of times, people come into companies and they’re established and it’s really hard as you know, to move a 10,000-pound gorilla. One of the things that I noticed, and that I’m hoping people do is, it’s way easier to do something right from the beginning than it is to go back and try to unwind it five or 10 years after you’ve been in business.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, also when you started writing a book, in your mind, who were you writing this for? You mentioned before, you don’t need the largest budget. So is this for small businesses? Can large businesses still have takeaways from the book?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Definitely. A lot of the companies I worked with when I was at Dell are large companies, right? Costco’s pretty good-sized company, Amazon’s pretty good-sized company. I think there were a lot of learnings no matter whether you’re a million-dollar company or a hundred-billion-dollar company that you can take from the book. The second half of the book is really focused on eCommerce and Amazon and online, which is my world.
That’s really more for companies that are anywhere from just starting out to maybe 50 million or so in annual revenue.
Connect With Your Customers Through Care and Experience
Drew Appelbaum: Now, personally, I have a marketing/community background and so I always wonder why this has to be discussed but just by digging into the book a little bit, can you talk about why connecting with the customer actually matters versus having a great product and just letting it sell itself?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Yes. I’ll ask everyone to close their eyes for a minute and think about a brand that they own that they love. This is where a couple of different brands, in my mind who have done a really good job of that— you don’t just want customers, we want advocates, right? Because it’s really hard for you as the brand to go out there and reach everybody.
Some of the best brands we’ve worked with do a great job with ambassadors. You think about YETI and YETI’s growth. They don’t just have customers, they have raving fans. You don’t want just a bunch of customers, you want a bunch of raving fans. In one of my past lives, we did a study and this was even before social media. The average unhappy customer tells 96 people. Now, with social media, that’s probably times a hundred because this was many years ago.
You want just as many people out there raving about you as you want not talking great about you. We found the brands that have been successful that we’ve worked with. There’s a brand, it was five years ago, where it was two guys in a We-Work and now is a hundred-million-dollar brand, they’ve done a really good job creating that connection with their customer.
Brands like Chewy do a great job, right? They know your dog’s birthday. If you stop ordering from them, they call you, and then if they find out your pet has passed away, they send you a bereavement package. These are the types of aspirational care for customers that I think is so important.
Drew Appelbaum: That’s really cute by the way. This could be when you’re starting out or maybe even if you’re established; how do you actually find the best channels for your brand? They’re not all created equal, right?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: That’s right. It really depends on what type of brand you are, right? If you’re an apparel brand, a lot easier to start. I think about a great company like Gym Shark, right? They built a lot of their business on ambassadors. People who are respected gym members and gym trainers, wearing their clothes. Same thing with Lulu Lemon, right? Lulu Lemon had a whole bunch of great ambassadors, some of the best folks wearing their clothes and so you always want to aspire. Same thing with when Peloton and the quality and the caliber of their trainers and their instructors.
I think it really depends on what kind of brand you are. It’s very different for a food and beverage brand versus an apparel brand, right? Food and beverage brand, I always say, if something goes on your body or in your mouth, it has to be sampled. I think, you know, COVID really has changed that for a lot of food and beverage brands that couldn’t do sampling in places like supermarkets. They’ve had to get creative with how they do it. And really, not all brands can be profitable online, right?
If you have a $10 average order value and you’re a food and beverage brand, it’s hard to make money selling pretzel bites online, a lot easier to make money selling $100 workout tights.
Bringing In An Outside Agency: What To Look For
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you make the decision to bring in an outside agency, what should you be looking for and what are the right questions to be asking?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: That’s another great question because I’ve always been on the brand side until I started this agency. It’s interesting to be on both sides of the equation here. I always tell people, when you’re evaluating an agency, especially at digital, you want to look at their past performance.
We’ll actually share— we will take out the brand names but we’ll share— at a high-level result. Here is spending and here is what they’re getting for their spend, here’s the return on ad spend. Also, ask them, how long have their average clients been with them?
Ask them if they have one, ask them what their net promoter score is. Also, ask them for case studies and client referrals. I think that’s probably the best way to do it. It is almost like hiring a person, right? Then also interview them for core values and core fit like are these people you want to work with. We have a rule, no jerks, you know? We are small enough that we don’t have to work with jerks, right? We don’t have to work with big companies. So, that is a really nice luxury we have as not being a big huge public company.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you mentioned it before— and I’d love to dig a little bit deeper— that some of the book is focused on Amazon selling. Can you just talk for the layman, what is it that makes selling on Amazon a completely different animal?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: You have to play by Amazon’s rules and Amazon constantly changes their rules. It’s like trying to play a board game without having read the rules and I think that’s where a lot of people get frustrated. As soon as you master it, they go ahead and change the rules. There is so many things that— and I started at the mom and baby company and the CEO said to me, “You know, we don’t know what we don’t know” which is a great understanding about yourself.
With Amazon, it is sort of like Google, you’re not going to show up on page one on the first day so what do you have to do both on the front end and the back end to show up? How do you maximize your advertising? How do you deal with competitors? What are the best images to have? What are the best practices? How can you scale your business? How do you get access to all of these features and betas and just not even knowing what’s available to you.
How do you do AB testing? What are the things you want to test? It’s like its own little universe in it of itself. It is very different than your own website or Facebook advertising or Google advertising. It is definitely its own beast.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, taking that into account and then just maybe thinking about it on a broader scale outside of Amazon— when you are putting up online in digital ads, how often should you be really tinkering with them and testing them? How much time do you think you need to keep them up before moving on?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: It’s a good question. Usually, we’ll make a call on the social side after about six to eight thousand impressions. Once it spins served up to about 8,000, 8,000 impressions, we can make a call one way or another. One of the things that we use is like a micro testing strategy so that we don’t spend a lot of our client’s money. As I said, we are not working with the big huge brands, so our clients have smaller budgets.
They’re newer brands and wasting $10 or $15,000 to them is a big deal, which is very different than the budgets I had coming from Dell. Usually, we’ll do this micro testing, we’ll find some winning audience. We’ll find their winning creative and then we’ll scale that. That is usually within about seven to 10 days from launching something we can see the clear winners and losers, turn things off, scale things up and then run with them.
Drew Appelbaum: I love to know what good performance looks like. You actually bring up an example in the book as somebody who is spending I think $3,000 on online ads but only getting $2,000 back in return— which is a very obvious example it’s not working but, is this successful campaign one where you make a dollar more profit than spend? How do you really judge the efficacy of your program?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: That is a good question and there’s really not one answer. It really depends on the client and the brand and their KPIs (key performance indicators). Some folks have very expensive costs of goods, others have more margin to play with. In general though, if you are spending a dollar and getting two dollars back, most folks can be profitable there. Then, of course, this is the dirty little secret which everybody knows but nobody wants to admit as a consumer, most apparel brands are 70% margin.
If you buy a $100 shirt, it probably costs them $25-$30 to make, right? If you are spending $50 to acquire that customer, they’re just about probably making maybe 10% of when you are done with overhead and things like that. Most people are happy with sort of a two return on ads spend, I spend a dollar I make two. Some of our clients enjoy $10 or $12 dollar return on one dollar of spent but they’re also bigger and they’ve got more repeat purchases.
I mean one of the things that is really important now just with all the changes and privacy, is just looking at your overall mix. Okay, if my marketing is 15% of my total spend— say a brand is making $200,000 in revenue a month. In general, if they are spending about 30,000 a month, they can be profitable. Most of the brands that we’re working with are looking to scale, they are looking to grow from one to five to 10 to 20 million, to 50 million.
That’s where most of them are. They’re looking at at least a two return on ad spend or a 15-20% total marketing spend of total revenue.
Your Company’s Core Values Are A Essential Part of Your Success
Drew Appelbaum: You also bring up that a lot of successful companies these days, if you really take a look under the hood, they really found, expressed, and explore their core values. One, how important is it to a company to discover these, and then how important is it to solidify these with the company? And do you actually take that, those values and show them externally as well or is that just kept internally?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Yeah, good question. At least for us at ROI Swift, we hire and fire and review them quarterly and we have a quiz in our quarterly meetings to name our core values. I think someone like Costco— you walk into any Costco and you see their core values right there on the wall. I had the pleasure of working with the executives at Costco and I was always really impressed that a lot of their folks, I would say the majority if not all, came from inside.
They’ve lived those core values. I have seen other companies hire from the outside and someone will come from another type of company that has a different type of values and won’t work out and that person will be gone. I think it’s important that you have them and that all the team members know them. I think the companies that do well are the companies that stick to those core values. If you look at Apple, if you look at Costco, if you look at the brands that a lot of people admire, they have those core values and they are very clear to their team and to their customers.
Drew Appelbaum: What impact do you hope the book will have on the reader and what do you hope that the first steps they’ll take will be after finishing it?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: The one hope I have is that they don’t read it and say, “Wow, that was a colossal waste of time.” So that’s my one hope because I don’t like to waste anybody’s time. My goal and what I’m hoping people takeaway is that they can take away one or two things that they can go do in their business now, or one or two questions they can go ask their marketing team or one or two ways that they could improve their business.
It is like going to a conference, right? I felt like anytime you invest whether it is reading time or time travel to a conference, you want to get something out of that that is actionable that you can take back and put in your business right away. For me, when I join the global entrepreneur’s organization, the EO organization, the first thing I took away from my first learning day was the cash conversion cycle and I went back and I changed how all my invoicing was done.
I got paid sooner, which meant I could pay my pupil sooner, which meant we could hire ahead, which meant we could take more clients. I am hoping that everybody can take one actionable thing out of the book.
Drew Appelbaum: Well Carolyn, we just touched on the surface of the book here. There is so much more in there and I just want to say too, you have some really great resources with the assignments on the back of the book for those who are really looking to go one level deeper in answering some of the questions that are brought up in the book. I want to say that just writing this book where you are helping businesses just become more successful is no small feat. So congratulations on having your book published.
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Thank you very much.
Drew Appelbaum: I do have one question left. If readers could take away only one single thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Know your numbers probably. You’d be amazed how many people I talk to that don’t know their profitability, their cogs, what their lifetime value is of a customer, what their conversion rate is online. I have seen folks, even folks who are five, $10 million businesses who can’t answer those questions. I would say go— if you need to talk to your finance person but— go and know your numbers because I don’t think you can ever grow and scale until you truly know your numbers.
Drew Appelbaum: Well Carolyn, this has been a pleasure and I am excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Business Growth Do’s and Absolute Don’ts, and you could find it on Amazon. Carolyn, besides checking out the book, is there anywhere else where people can come and connect with you?
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Yes, you can find me on LinkedIn, Carolyn Lowe. You can also go to our website, roiswift.com. We are pretty much the cobbler with no shoes though since we spend most of our time growing other brands, so please excuse our website if you do in fact go there. But yes, those are the two places you can find me and ROI Swift.
Drew Appelbaum: Don’t judge the website folks. Carolyn, thank you so much for coming on the show today and giving us some of your time, and best of luck with your new book.
Carolyn Byron Lowe: Thank you, Drew.