Sink or Sell Episode 7 - The Importance of Brand Building and Online Sales

11th April 2017

Kate Whitcomb has a long history in retail. She spent four years at Target, where she was responsible for more than $500 million in product spend across beauty, home and infant goods. Recently she found herself as the growth and innovation lead for Target’s Consumer IoT team in San Francisco, where she focused on helping Bay Area hardware startups get ready for retail distribution. Kate speaks on startup-retail relationships extensively, and recently appeared at the Techstars Stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

As Kate says, new products need to start increasing their revenue right away, and online sales is a great way to do this after initial crowdfunding. Additionally, branding is a huge priority, so that these new products are easily recognizable to consumers. Of course, branding is a huge deal for any startup, not just those seeking online sales. Once a company is done or almost done with their manufacturing process, they need to shift their focus almost entirely to branding, marketing, public relations and getting the product out there.

This is for two reasons. One, you want potential business partners and retail buyers to have already heard of your product, whether this is in industry publications or just on blogs. Even if someone writes an unfavorable review of your product on their blog, that’s still better than uno press at all. Two, you want to drive consumers to the retailers that you’re working with. This not only increases your sales, it also makes your retail partners happy.

The branding and marketing tools needed are more accessible than ever for startups and founders, without being an expert. Facebook ads, social media, Youtube — it all counts. Reach out to social influencers and ask them to post about your product on Instagram, write a blog post or feature it in one of their videos. Send them a complimentary sample. These are simple steps that any startup can take and that are incredibly easy. Even taking professional product photos isn’t as difficult as it seems, with a decent camera, light box from Amazon and a little Photoshop. Discounted help is available by means of design interns who just want startup experience on their resume. All of these digital marketing efforts lead to online sales.

So where do you send this online demand once you have it? You need to be able to take pre-orders, regardless of whether or not you have a crowdfunding campaign. Your website should enable that. Also realize that you don’t need to push yourself to take on more orders than you can handle. Beyond the orders, the customer feedback, questions and complaints alone can be overwhelming. Start with baby steps so that you can grow your company without going under.

Kate recommends startups begin with direct sales, for at least three months, and promises that the wait will be a valuable learning period. However, after this, a good next step can be moving sales to Amazon Launchpad. It’s easy to implement and something that founders can do themselves, without a middleman. Set up time is small and Amazon offers tons of marketing and traffic that most brands could never achieve on their own. Once set up on Amazon, start raking in those reviews. Ask vetted Amazon reviewers for product feedback and get everyone you can to chime in. Retail buyers look at Amazon reviews and they do take notice of what people are saying.

Overall, Kate says that these online sales and early branding efforts can help you make it in the retail world when it’s finally time to take that step. With your learned patience and established branding, you’ll be able to create an honest and open relationship with a retailer, proving to them that you have the maturity needed to be a retail genius. 

Learn more tips like this at HardwareCon 2018, the Bay Area’s Premier Hardware Innovation conference on April 19th-20th.  Experience two full days of keynotes, panels and workshops focused on the most important topics around building a successful hardware company. Get your tickets here now if you want to meet the hottest startups, investors and industry leaders across the global hardware ecosystem.

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