UPDATE: Tower Paddle Boards has given us an update on how they've been doing since Shark Tank! Check out their page to see how they've made the most of 2012 and how they're set up to do the same in 2013.
Stephen Aarstol of Tower Paddle Boards recently rose to fame after his successful appearance on ABC’s hit primetime show, Shark Tank. Continue reading to see how he did it.
Stephen Aarstol, owner of Tower Paddle Boards, has seen more success in one year than most businesses see in a lifetime. In fact, he’s now partnering with billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks Owner, Mark Cuban. Utilizing Volusion as his ecommerce platform, Aarstol has been featured on ABC’s primetime TV show, Shark Tank, has seen sales increase and is on pace to reach $1.5 million in sales with his online business.
So how did Tower do it, and what role did Volusion play in the success of a millionaire? Let’s find out!
What’s the story behind your business?
After being introduced to paddle boarding by a friend in 2010, I registered the URL and set up my ecommerce site. Tower Paddle Boards is a direct to consumer brand of stand up paddle boards (or "SUPs," as they're known) based in San Diego. SUP is the fastest growing water sport in the world. Tower is the brand, the importer, the shop, and the marketing arm, all in one, and it leverages Volusion to reach consumers directly. By eliminating several layers within the distribution channel, we are able to sell a $1200 retail SUP for under $700.
When and why did you choose Volusion?
I've been in the web space since 1999, and I've been using Volusion since 2005 for a separate company I founded, called BuyPokerChips.com. Initially, I used Yahoo! Stores for that site. As that business took off, we looked for a cleaner solution. Our Yahoo! Store was all built on static pages, which made it a huge project to update the content and/or design. We wanted one that was easier to maintain, but as our business was largely SEO driven, we insisted on having one that was SEO-friendly. I also didn't like the fact that we were restricted to using the Yahoo Cart. It was a disjointed user experience. There were also various enhanced functionalities and features that we were looking for that Yahoo wasn't willing to provide, so we went out looking for a better solution.
After extensively examining every ecommerce suite available on the market at the time (2005), Volusion was the clear choice. I've been using it ever since for a number of different ventures (I currently have four Volusion stores), and have recommended it to many of my entrepreneurial associates. It essentially provides Amazon.com type functionality to a small business, without the need to develop anything in-house or maintain a tech staff.
When your site launched, were you faced with any challenges?
At this point, I'm well versed in starting up ecommerce companies and relying on the familiar Volusion interface and functionality. One nice aspect is that I can use the same template across multiple businesses, so that saves a ton on design costs. I'm not a web designer, nor a programmer. With Volusion, that's a non-issue. I can pretty much set-up a new ecommerce business that is professionally SEO-optimized in about 4-6 weeks. Since I know Volusion so well now, the biggest challenge is just capturing and preparing the product images and writing all of the product text.
How has Volusion impacted your business?
Volusion has everything that is essential to run an efficient, high-performing ecommerce business. Online business is a rapidly evolving field - the technology, the marketing, and the general understanding of what works and what doesn't. I've been in the web business for over a decade, and in doing so I've learned that it's critical to spend a good chunk of your time keeping pace with what's on the cutting edge. This gives you a strategic and tactical advantage as the business as usual crowd follows along about five years behind. From what I've seen over the past 8 years, Volusion does a great job of evolving right along with the bleeding edge of the web business, and that proves invaluable as you can let them do much of the heavy lifting and just flip on new functionality as it becomes relevant. That's one of my favorite parts of using Volusion - they actually help push my business forward.
How much traffic have you experienced after switching to Volusion? Have you experienced an increase in revenue?
One of the primary reasons we went with Volusion as our ecommerce solution initially is because it is very SEO-friendly. It's a great platform, but to achieve SEO success you still have to put together the best products and the best value proposition available on the market, and then make those offerings visible. Volusion doesn't get in the way. That may not sound like a benefit, but for many solutions SEO-friendliness is an afterthought. For me, that's a deal breaker as great products and great businesses are worthless if they're invisible on the web.
What milestones has your store achieved in terms of sales percentage increases, and site traffic?
Our business launched 18 months ago. We did more than $3,000/month in sales for the first time 12 months ago. Last year we did just short of $250,000 in sales, and this year we're on pace to do $1.5 million in sales.
Even before the Shark Tank airing, which created an incredible traffic spike, our site's monthly traffic (visitors, unique visitors, and page views) numbers were all up 300% year over year.
For all the major keywords in our sector, we're either at the #1 listing in Google or very close to that. Granted, this is largely a result of having the best value proposition in our industry by a wide margin and our ability to make our products findable, but it's also a testament to the importance of having an ecommerce solution as SEO-friendly as Volusion.
Tell us about this whole Shark Tank thing!
Less than a year after starting the online store, sales had taken off and Tower was selected to be on ABC's primetime TV show, Shark Tank, to pitch to their panel of investors. The show filmed in July of 2011, and billionaire Mark Cuban offered to invest $150,000 for a 30% stake in Tower Paddle Boards, plus he negotiated for a 1st right of refusal to invest in any business that I raised money for in the future (that second part was a first ever on the show!). That deal closed in November of 2011 and I had to keep this all a secret for 9 months as the show didn't air until March 16, 2012.
Aarstol and his sidekick wow the panel on Shark Tank.
Shark Tank aired to over 6 million people and Volusion helped Tower prepare for the onslaught of traffic. For the show, Tower upgraded to one semi-dedicated server plus another dedicated server with load balancing between the two of them, and also installed a splash page upfront to ease the burden on the database. It was well worth it as Tower did more business in the 72 hours following the show than they did in the first six months in business. Within weeks of the show airing, Stephan wrote Mark Cuban his first dividend check for $50,000 (a 33% return on his investment in 120 days from funding). Overall, Tower's business has tripled in the last year and they're on pace to do $1.5M in sales in 2012.
"Getting airtime on a #1 hit show like Shark Tank is notorious for crashing websites. Tower Paddle Board's site withstood the rush just fine.” -Mark Cuban
Are you taking advantage of Volusion’s marketing tools?
Yes, we utilize the automated customer review emails and we've seen a sharp uptick in the number of reviews we see. These are absolute gold for increasing sales conversions and provide an automated way of getting real feedback from customers.
What advice would you give other business owners? What’s your business philosophy?
Some people equate business with capitalism - hey, it's just business. I disagree. My philosophy on business is that, like anything, it can be used for good or evil.
In its best form, it can be a creative process of innovation, where entrepreneurs dream up things and experiences that can absolutely improve the lives of people around them. They can make a contribution to the betterment of society, provide jobs to help others make their own rewarding lives, all while creating a very rewarding life for themselves.
On the flip side, in its lowest form, it can be a manipulative process where cunning people scheme up ways to separate people from their money without adding any real value to their lives or society in general. Practices of this nature can actually deteriorate society, exploit the weak and less fortunate, and all in an ill-fated pursuit of money for the sake of money.
Like everything else, business is what you make of it.
I'm very fortunate to have great parents and they are the biggest influence in my life. They taught me what's important in life. Friends. Family. Enjoying life. Making a contribution. Being a free thinker. Striving for a better, more fulfilling life, but not stepping on anyone to get there.
What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from opening an online store?
The goal is to automate things as much as you can, for both your business and your customers. You should spend a good chunk of your time fixing the processes, otherwise you'll spend all of your time putting out fires. Fix the processes upfront and everything else becomes easy.
Thanks to Tower Paddle Boards for the exclusive interview! And don't forget to check out their 2012/2013 update to see how business keeps getting better and better.