Massive interest from consumers passionate about performance footwear has pushed sneakers to the top of the hot product list. Limited edition collections are experiencing the fastest growth in the sports footwear market, but it’s not just about the product. Consumers want to celebrate the unique lifestyle we associate with sneakers, and they are congregating on The Sole Supplier to do it. The destination, which combines price comparison services with compelling content, has become the authority on sneaker news, release dates and editorial. Our host Peggy Anne Salz catches up with George Sullivan, The Sole Supplier’s CEO and Founder, to talk about the communication do’s and don’ts digital-first companies should follow to ignite shopper interest and inspire purchases. George also draws from his experience as an entrepreneur and shares the secret to achieving consistent and impressive 70% year-on-year growth. He talks about the role of personalization and automation and offers smart tips for connecting with “tribes” to drive loyalty and virality.
But of course, you need to connect with your customers in a meaningful way and that’s what we’ll be talking about because, hey, we are living history right now, we are rewriting the playbook as we go along. It’s challenging times, it’s exciting times, it’s something we can’t do alone. We need guidance, we need good advice and we benefit from listening to others, that’s why it’s a pleasure, a privilege on Reimagine Growth today to welcome my guest, George Sullivan, CEO and Founder of The Sole Supplier. George, great to have you here today on Mobile Presence, how you doing?
GS I’m good, thank you, Peggy, thanks for having me on.
PAS And I love it, The Sole Supplier, I was thinking about that – what could be a better name for your company, why don’t you tell us all about what The Sole Supplier is?
GS So, The Sole Supplier is a website app that helps millions of people each month find their next best pair of shoes and we do that, actually we focus on trainers, not just shoes, the casual sneaker market which is worth coming up to just 100 billion, it’s a crazy growing market. And what we do is we create high quality content and we have technology that pulls data from over a 100 retailers to show the latest and greatest shoes and the latest prices and sizes.
PAS And of course The Sole Supplier, that’s our little internal pun here, it makes tons of sense. How did you come across that, are you just like a fan of the British humor, just has to be a pun or what?
GS You know, like, I actually didn’t realize the power – you know, The Sole Supplier, I didn’t realize – our mission now is to be the only place you need to find your next pair of trainers. So the name works, you know, for that mission. But it wasn’t originally decided as that for that reason. You know, I didn’t know anything about branding when I came up with the name and I now know that some of the simplest names, and some of the biggest companies have like short names, Amazon, Google, Apple, Nest…
So I’ve got this sort of 3-word name which to some is quite wordy but it’s got the literation in it, you know, Sole Supplier, which works. So, yes, it’s turned out okay, yes.
PAS It’s cool, I mean, I haven’t, you know, you can do quite a lot, I haven’t looked around at the swag that you might have but I could see some real fun stuff, you know, that you could do with this and with the logo. So you’ve been doing this, what, you started in 2014, right, and it just came to you, what, you just love – okay, you call them trainers, we’ll call them sneakers, we’ll meet in the middle there somewhere, George – you just love them and you said, that’s it, there’s a market for this, I'm in?
GS Yes, so I was around 18 years old when I started, I bought my first pair of trainers and when I was growing up, I didn’t really have – and like shout out at my parents, I love them both, right, but trainers weren’t a massive thing for me when I was growing up but I saw people wearing them and I thought, you know, when I start earning money, I’m going to buy my pair, so I bought them and I started getting into the hobby of buying more when I was earning more money and I sort of got the bug which is like this is the thing that gets millions of people, the bug to buy trainers and this comes from like hip hop and, you know, a lot of American culture but now the UK is kind of probably one of the biggest hubs for trainers, right, in terms of data as well.
So, yes, around 10 years ago, and then anyway I'm buying a lot of shoes but also I’m getting into them so much that I'm selling some of my shoes for profit because some of these shoes are worth more when they sell out. So I was actually making a secondary income whilst working in recruitment, so I was selling some of these shoes whilst I was collecting them and making quite good money on eBay.
And then all of a sudden, like, I was reading a lot of different books about the web and digital and starting websites, because I was always interested in that, and the idea came to me that I needed to give people the information that I had, you know, all this information that I had to find where to buy the shoes, I needed to create a website that helped people that were the same as me, that wanted this info, and that was where the idea came from.
PAS So, we were talking a bit before the show and talking about how this has developed. I mean, it is massive, I mean, today particularly to be growing something like 70% revenue growth year on year since you started, is that correct?
GS Yes, that’s right. So 70% average year on year over the past 5 years and it’s all self-invested and organic, so we’re really proud of that as a team.
PAS Another thing it’s organic is also just that sense of community because you bring them in, we’ll get to how you actually do that, I’m searching for prices, so you’re aggregating prices but you’re also attracting me with an awful lot of awesome content.
Do you make that in-house or how do you do that?
GS So, yes, we originally started – I started it like parents’ spare bedroom, you know, working after work when I came home and my goal was just to create content and be first to the market with the content, you know, to find this content and post it on the website and post it to Twitter. Let people know when these shoes were coming out and my goal initially was like I need to get stuff ranking in Google but that didn’t happen for a long time – that’s another story.
But so it started out as very much focused on creating great content and being first to the market with the content and then all of a sudden, when you’re doing that, you get a lot of respect from people on social media because you’re providing value that saves them time, it gives them what they want quickly. So, it’s since developed very much into like driving, helping people to purchase with technology, it was originally just all about creating content and being first with it and it still is, very much, but there’s a lot more to it now.
PAS So what can you tell me about your community, a little bit maybe not necessarily just the numbers but, you know, there must be some sort of vibe – is there a certain demographic because that’s going to influence a lot of what we’re going to talk about in a bit, is how you approach them, how you engage them, how you of course retain them – but who are they first?
GS I think like if you’re turning your passion into an income or you’re turning your passion into a business, then these people are your people, you know? So the people that you’re talking to when you’re growing your passion business, you’re going to be able to relate to them. So then it becomes easier to talk to them, it becomes easier to understand what they like because you’re already in that mindset, you know? So, we’ve got actually two Facebook groups and they’re just under 100,000 users in the Facebook groups across them – we’ve got 3 actually, one for the Sole Women’s as well, and that’s where the community hub is.
We talk to a lot of people, people from the company chip in there as well and like I don’t think a lot of founders or owners of companies can actually say that they know loads of their customers. Like, I know loads of my people that look at the website, like, I’ve made friends through the community. I can go up to Selfridges in London on a Saturday and there’s regularly every Saturday people that meet from our community around The Sole Supplier which is just mad, it’s crazy, and I speak to people in there all the time, it’s crazy, the community.
PAS So, absolutely a tribe.
GS It’s absolutely a tribe and it’s just the trainers that are bringing people together, people’s love for shoes and people wanting to swap pairs because they didn’t get their size or someone giving someone some help to find a pair – there’s just so much community and friendship in this industry. It’s great, Peggy, honestly.
PAS It sounds pretty cool, I do it a little bit on the sidelines but I hadn’t thought about it but of course these aren’t just purchases, this is passion and as you said it’s how – it’s about being genuine, understanding your community – there’s not too many founders out there, most people I know, I do content marketing so I can say off the record a lot of people are here, write this, post this, I can’t be bothered with this stuff – they outsource their social media and you’re living it, which is fantastic.
But, we do have to go to a break right now but I really want to hear about how you bring that across in your communications because, again, it has to be genuine, it has to be the real deal. So listeners, don’t go away, we’ll be right back after the break.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence. Reimagine Growth, our mini series. We have George Sullivan, CEO and Founder of The Sole Supplier and George, before the break, we were just talking about your tribe, you know, your community, these are people who are not just buying sneakers, I mean, they live the love. And of course that means that the communications have to be equally genuine. Just some high level thought here, for example, is there a specific way of communicating, is it all, you know, messaging and bots, is it in-app or is it push notifications? What are some of the channels that are working or do you just let the tribe decide?
GS No, we’ve got around 25 marketing people and they create content, they create social posts, they manage community stuff, video content, designers, you know. So the marketing team, we’re basically a huge arm of our business’s content marketing. I’ve always wanted to do content marketing authentically so if there’s – what I mean by that is a lot of companies will try and use tools and automation way too much but let me give you an example.
So, there’s a lot of manual work that happens, so we use Clevertap, as you know, and we’ve actually got like 3 people, 4 people now in fact that are creating campaigns in Clevertap manually. So, Clevertap offer a lot of good features and they offer features for automation as well, so you can actually like hit your audience in an automated way, save yourself time. We’re like, no, we know that people don’t want to be hit with too many messages and they need to be hit with the right messages, so we’ve actually employed 4 people that manage the messages to make sure that people get the right communications.
So important, because it helps with conversion rates, like our click rates on push notifications and email are like 3 times higher than industry averages. So, it’s working for us, you know?
PAS Absolutely, and I mean it works because that’s the type of, that’s where you are – I mean, if this was something very, very vastly different like a supermarket, it might be a bit different. You always have segmentation…
GS That’s true.
PAS But doing this at scale, you’re going to lose some of that touch but you have that high touch in the high tech. What are you also seeing there, is there something about frequency or tone? I mean, obviously you’re doing it with your content marketing, with your team but there are some guidelines, there are some rules of thumb that maybe you’d like to share.
GS Yes, so a couple of things. I think it’s really important if you’re going to start messaging your users, I would initially if you don’t have segmentation set up – and what I mean by that is if you don’t understand their likes or dislikes, pages that they visit the most, they I would err on the side of caution with your messaging, you know? I wouldn’t be hitting them too regularly, I would just be testing things a lot more easy going.
But if you’ve got segmentation set up, it can be really nice to actually put the control in the hands of the user so one of the features we’re developing right now is letting the user just decide in a granular level what notifications they want and now we’ve seen this in certain other raps like really helpful actually.
So you can say I want reminders for this Nike Airforce One, I want restock reminders and I want to be told when the price drops at these retailers. So, actually giving the user control with your messaging is really important because I think there’s way too many brands that assume too much about their users and that’s how users get upset because they’re getting stuff they don’t want because the brand has assumed they should be.
PAS That’s an interesting point because you’re letting them be in control a bit, of course, in the background, you know, the solution is also in control, you’re controlling the wording, it’s more about the automation to a point. Is there something that you’ve noticed is more effective than others, I mean, we’ve talked about what the messages are in terms of the content but what about the actual delivery? Are these all of the above because you have an app and you have a website so it might be a little bit of omnichannel going on in there where you have to hand off from one, you know, dimension or one platform rather to another.
GS Yes, so something I really love is split testing and let’s give you an example of paid ads on Facebook. So, we’ll run a paid ad for a shoe and we’ll actually offer, we’ll actually run three different captions, or three pieces of copy for that ad and three different images. So we’ve got six variations for the same ad. And then we’ll pick the best performer because we understand that’s what the audience like and then we’ll tailor the wording of the best performer again to go for another three variations. And we actually do that with Clevertap as well, so we’re constantly split testing our messages.
Like you say, to understand the tone, what people respond best to really and it’s funny because you get some real good insights like our audience don’t like to be – they don’t like to be told to do things, you know, like they don’t like to be told buy now, they don’t like to be told – like really direct in that way. What we found is the messaging that works best is more just like subtle, like hey, this is available here, it’s at a discount, and you let them make their mind up.
GS But then I’ve seen some brands go the other way where they’re very like quite like buy now, get right now, buy it here, and it’s quite different strategies but for us, the subtle approach definitely works with the messaging.
PAS What about the messaging that many people in retail, you know, it’s a journey and people drop off in the journey, there’s the famous abandoned cart etc. I mean, how do you handle that? It would be interesting because you are, this is a very different type of community so you can’t just sort of follow them necessarily with the picture of those sneakers they didn’t but and haunt them, which is what happens to most of us when we shop, you know – I’ve looked at an item and it will follow me now everywhere in all advertising.
You have a different approach, it’s more of a nudge, it’s more of a suggestion. Tell me about how you get people through that funnel to that all important conversion. What are some of the things that work?
GS Okay, so yes, I can give you some good tips hopefully here. So, some of the things that we know work best are understanding our content blocks and our messaging blocks for people. So what are the main reasons they are tuning into The Sole Supplier, what are they looking for when they use our website and app? So we understand that they’re looking for breaking news on the latest high heat shoes – when I say high heat, I mean, you know, these exclusive shoes like Yeezys, Off White Nike pairs of shoes, the stuff that sells out first. They need breaking news on that. That’s one block.
There’s a whole group of people, omnichannel like Facebook, Insta, Twitter, that want discounted shoes. So, we talk to them in a different way as well. So really what I’m getting at here is like understanding your different content blocks, your audience, is so important and then this comes down to like audience analysis. So, really digging into the reasons why people use your product – that’s so important because once you understand the why, you can really tailor your marketing messages and you can really talk to people in the right way. So important.
PAS How quickly are you talking to them because I know one of the USPs of Clevertap, you know, is the realtime, is that immediacy which can be very key. Maybe not necessarily for you but maybe then, you know, if you have someone who’s really hooked on those sneakers and wants to know about it, you can respond, you know, and tell them exactly where to get them and exactly the best price – that’s something that can’t go stale.
GS Yes, so we’re actually, we’ve got an in-house breaking news strategy which is spread across like two or three people and those two or three people do different things and our goal, our USP has already been to be one of, if not the first with the info on the shoes across the UK and European market. So, you know, straightaway as soon as we get a piece of breaking news, we treat it like a newsroom, you know, a big news outlet. We’re sending a push to the right people, we’re sending an email, we’re publishing on the site, we’re just about to launch web push notifications as well and it’s going in the app. I mean, literally, within ten minutes, it’s all out and then like thousands of people have seen it and we are the originator of the news.
I mention this in my framework for content creation, I don’t know if you saw it on my LinkedIn, Peggy, but three principles – be first, be the best or be original. If you can tick those three things or you can just mix between them, so being first, being best, being original, then your content’s going to pop eventually – they’re the three principles.
PAS I love that and I love threes, I hate going to break now, George, but I'm going to have to. I'm going to go to a break right now but we are going to come back because obviously you love to share, you love to share tips, very straightforward, solid advice and our audience love to hear it, I love to hear it. So don’t go away, listeners, we’ll be right back.
And we’re back again, Mobile Presence. Our guest today, George Sullivan, CEO and Founder of The Sole Supplier. George, I have to say, time is flying with you and I’m enjoying every minute – we’re just whizzing right through this and getting to also I think some important advice for our listeners. You started it with your content marketing sort of manifesto, your blueprint, you obviously have gone through, been there, done that, as an entrepreneur. Is there something you can share either the advice you wish someone had given you or advice that you really want to give us that we just avoid some of those pitfalls. This is not a time in COVID-19 to be experimenting too much, so you want to try and get things right from the start. What would you like to share?
GS Yes, if you’re a new business and you need to understand your main thing to look at, like to measure your success – so, for me, my original target within the first year was are we gaining traction on Twitter because the news that I'm posting first is working, and then that was happening, we were growing a lot of followers fast.
And then my second target, I set myself these targets, was to get a number one ranking in Google, in the organic section, for a popular shoe. It took me seven months to do that, a Nike Triple White Huarache [26:35]. So, like, that was all my goal was originally was just to create this content, get it out first with the aim of the Twitter following growing and people learning about us, and then getting the rankings.
But now, as the business has grown, we still look at key metrics but it’s like understanding what you’re meant to look at on each channel, so for social, it’s the engagement rate, there’s nothing more important on social than the engagement rate – I don’t care what anyone says, engagement rate is important, it’s the best factor for the algorithm and then on the website, kind of the same but conversion rate. So people that actually click through to our retailers because if they’re clicking through then the content we’ve provided is working, right? They’re enjoying the content, they actually want to click through and they want to buy or they want to find out more.
So, knowing your metrics for each channel, so important, and focusing on how you improve those but make sure those metrics are focused n the user and not just like your top line which is like revenue. Make sure they’re user-focused, like engagement rate, conversion rate, because that is how you will see success.
PAS It’s also a lot in these times, I say in these times but, you know, it’s not because it’s overly dramatic, it’s just a fact, this is different and this is going to be different for a while. What have you noticed in how you engage or how you need to be speaking with your customers that has maybe changed, that again we can learn from because, as I said, we’re rewriting a playbook, it’s exciting fun to say, ‘Oh, forget what we learned all in business school’ or whatever, we can write a brand new one which is very empathetic, very engaging but very different from the hard sell that we had before. You never did a hard sell with your tribe, to your credit, but was has changed for you about that marketing considering it’s all about a bit more like of hey, how’s it going, how are you feeling? That’s part of it now.
GS Yes, Peggy, right now my mission aside from The Sole Supplier mission which is to be the only place you need to find your next pair of trainers, my mission is to help and inspire as many people to turn their passions into businesses, to grow their businesses and to share everything that I’ve learned in the best way possible. So, you know, that’s my messaging, that’s what I do on some of The Sole Supplier channels, I sort of help people more, replying to DMs, messages, and like you say just having empathy and we’re here to connect with other people in this life and help others, right? It’s not just all about us winning in business, it’s about, like, can we affect the lives of other people, that is so important to me. So, that’s my mission.
PAS Absolutely, and that’s so genuine and that is so rare because really a lot of people are like, I’m talking to people who are I don’t have an awful lot of time because I have to be watching everything and just watching to react rather than thinking about what they could change or do differently, it’s just like let me just stay on top of this market, right? And yours is about, in a way, leading it, so I'm really impressed.
Just as a last word then because I can imagine it will be fascinating to come from you – it’s hard sometimes being in business on your own, I’m in business on my own and there are times when it’s just like no, going to maybe consider, you know, just once in a while giving up, never really happens but there are those moments, so what do you have – because you have this experience, you obviously have this passion and you care – what can you leave us with to say, hey, think about this next time you’re thinking about just chucking it all in.
GS I was thinking about chucking it in after six months and I was working fulltime and the site wasn’t making any money and I had a few freelancers working for me that were helping me create the content whilst I was at work and I was literally close to like giving up because I couldn’t get the Google rankings. And then I’m telling you now, it’s this cliché story, like two weeks after that, within two weeks, we got the first ranking in Google for the first place with the popular shoe of the summer and that was
it, like the business idea was validated, I was then hungry to get more, more rankings and then it just took off from there.
So, just stick at it because that success can just be round the corner and that story for me is like proof of that happening. And now, we’re helping millions a month, we’ve got an amazing team of like 35 people and things couldn’t be better right now, even in this tough time, we’ve still managed to persevere and be strong as a team. So, nurture your team, keep going and learn, keep learning because that’ll get you far.
PAS That is inspiring, that’s wonderful, George. And obviously you said before, DMs, everything, you’re there for them. How do our listeners stay in touch with you?
GS Yes, please hit me personally on – well, don’t hit me, but hit me up on Instagram, georgesullivantss and LinkedIn, George Sullivan, and Twitter @georgesullivan. Follow The Sole Supplier channels too, if you want to find your next best pair of shoes, it’s been good to be on here, I’ve really enjoyed it, you know.
PAS It’s been awesome having you, George, it’s not going to be the last because you know I'm a little bit of a content machine of my own and I very much plan to have you sort of walk through some different articles that I’ll be writing and definitely have you back here as well. It’s been just a joy, thank you so much.
GS Love that, thanks, Peggy.
PAS And listeners, you can see this is the place to be, you know, this is your destination, this is your place and you can keep up with me throughout the week, find out how you can be a guest or sponsor on Mobile Presence, if you have a great story, let me know, you can email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, mobilegroove.com is where you can also find my portfolio of content marketing and app marketing services.
Of course you can always check out, and you should indeed check out all earlier episodes of our show by going to wmr.fm or you can find our shows on iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker, Spotify and iheartRadio simply by searching Mobile Presence. So until next time – remember - every minute is mobile, so make every minute count. Keep well, stay safe and we’ll see you soon.