It’s time to catch up with Clayton Chrisman, who bought TrollingMotors.net over two years ago. If you’ve every wondered about buying a business, Clayton gets candid about his biggest “a-ha” moments as well as how the site is doing today.
Clayton is here to cover how things panned out including an inside look at what it’s like to buy your first eCommerce business.
Andrew: Thank you so much for tuning in today, and excited for today’s episode, because I’m bringing you a follow-up to my trollingmotors.net sale.
A couple of years ago, sold that business which I started after I ran it for two, three years, ended up selling it to a great guy named Clayton Chrisman. And it’s been a couple of years since he purchased it and wanted to do a follow-up. How did things pan out? Did everything fall apart? Did it go well? You hear sometimes about how these deals go down at the moment, but I think doing a follow-up would be interesting, so we dive into all sorts of things in terms of how the business is, what’s changed, and what it’s like to buy your first eCommerce business, and looking back on some of the challenges a couple of years down the road.
Andrew: So just as a little bit of background, I’m sure most people, or at least a lot of people will probably be familiar with it. If you’re not, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll link up in the show notes to the original post that I did selling trollingmotors.net. As a quick recap, I did it as a completely transparent sale. I posted all of the financials and income, all the major stats on my website, and then I did a reverse auction. I set the price high, and then dropped the price by $10,000 every week, and the first person to bid was the one who got it.
So those are the high level points. It sold for $170,000, which represented about a 2.7, 2.8-ish X multiple on earnings. And those are the high numbers again. I’ll link up to all the details in the show notes, but let’s go ahead and dive in and chat with Clayton and hear how things have gone for him the last two years after taking the reins. (Listen to the original podcast here.)
Andrew: Clayton, so I’ve got to say, man, congratulations. We’re about two years in from the point when you purchased trollingmotors.net, and congratulations on it.
Clayton: Thank you.
Andrew: Andrew: What I’m hoping we’ll find out here is a successful two years.
Clayton: Good to be here.
Andrew: Yeah. Thanks for being willing…
Clayton: Feels like yesterday.
Andrew: I know, it’s so quickly, It’s crazy to think it’s been two years. Actually, it’d be interesting. We’re going to go ahead and jump back in time here really quickly. Just a real quick excerpt from our conversation a couple of years ago that we had right after the business sale close. So let’s take a listen to that.
What possessed you to bid on the site? It came up. You got the email from me with the whole public auction thing, and I guess what was your description, and your background, and where you were coming from, and what made you decide to bid?
Clayton: Over the last year, I’d been exploring, doing some different things in my career, and one of those haves was learning about eCommerce. Basically at that point, I’d also learned about Trolling Motors obviously because you talk about it in your educational materials and so on, and I was really intrigued by the business, both just the products and the niche and your approach, and I just kept an eye on the road over the course of the year. And during that year, I had the opportunity to look at a lot of other prospectuses from other eCommerce businesses, and actually even other types of businesses. I was looking to buy a small business.
And I came close to bidding on a couple that are actually different, larger, but over the course of the year, I narrowed my focus in terms of what I want and what I needed, what kind of risk I was comfortable taking on. Again, I was a neophyte in eCommerce, with very limited experience on this front, although I think I had experience in technology. And then out of the blue, your email came, and it just sort of…everything about it checked the boxes on what I’d been looking for. I took a leap of faith and did some analysis and placed the bid.
Andrew: All right. We’re back to present day, of course. Clayton, so I got to ask, what kind of fears did you have coming into this? You did your due diligence, but how worried were you that you just bought a lemon from this snake oil salesman that you’re going to impart all of your hard-earned cash to, and two weeks after the close, everything was just going to fall apart.
Clayton: Well, you’re always nervous when you write a big check, but as you said, I did do a lot of due diligence, and I don’t think I was too worried that I bought a lemon for a lot of reasons, not least of which was I also had a sense of who you were as a person. And I think you had some credibility on the line, too, in the nature of how you were selling the business so transparently. And I had been following eCommerce Fuel and your blog for a year, so I’d like to have a sense that I knew you a little bit, even though we had never really met or talked until we started this transaction. So I never thought I was in danger of buying a complete lemon, but I was certainly worried about the business not performing, specifically could I maintain the revenues? Could I grow them? That was one of my fears.
Another fear was would I enjoy myself? I’ve never ran an eCommerce business before. This was going to be me as a sole operator. Was I going to like it, or was this going to be some new form of misery that I just wrote a check for.
And then on top of that, there’s always fear of the unknown. It’s just sort of you can do all your research and you don’t know what you don’t know, and whether that was, was Google going to change their algorithm and all of a sudden I’m hosed or am I going to lose the supplier or is there going to be some new form of energy that eliminates the electric trolling motor. Who knows? But those are sort of the worries.
Andrew: These are generally, if you do your diligence, a pretty good investment, but that’s the thing. There’s a reason they trade for 2 to 3X because, man, there’s a lot that can go wrong if you’re not careful. And so the million dollar question everyone wants to know, how have things been the last two years from a revenue and profitability standpoint? Has it flatlined? Has it dropped precipitously? Has it done well? What are the results, man?
Clayton: Well, going into it, I have to say my expectations were pretty low, not because I didn’t have hopes or not because I didn’t think I could do well with it, but it’s more like I didn’t want to set an unreasonable expectation for myself and then be bummed out. But the great news is things have gone much better than I expected, which wasn’t hard, again, because my expectations were low, but I’d say that they went quite a bit higher than I even thought was going to be possible.
Revenues have grown consistently, pretty much since I bought the business, which, in my wildest dreams, I didn’t think that was going to be achievable, but won’t go into specific numbers. I went into it with an attitude that, A, I’d written you a large check, and B, the revenues that the business was, at the time, producing weren’t really going to be suitable for the lifestyle I wanted to lead, and I needed to get the business ramped up to a certain threshold for me to be happy.
Andrew: Because you’re kind of a playboy, right? Let’s be honest.
Clayton: Happily, I can report that the business has achieved a really nice place in that time. So the revenues grew consistently. I will caveat that though and say that nothing lasts forever, and lo and behold, just as I got used to growth, I started to see some plateau. And then we can talk about that a little bit later, because I think some of your questions will gear towards that, I’m sure.
Andrew: Yeah, and that’s so, Clayton, when I first heard that that I was just thrilled for the sake of…yeah, you buy the business, it continues to grow, and it’s fantastic. I joked with you, too. I ended up flicking at the two businesses I had at the time, and the one I sold continued to grow. The one I held on to fell of the cliff by 30% revenue the subsequent year.
Clayton: Murphy’s Law.
Andrew: So, Murphy’s Law.
Clayton: Well, I’d like to think that you got your other business growing back again. So hopefully it’s happy faces all around.
Andrew: It did. We had a great year this year, and coming off the heels of that and got some of those problems fixed as I’ve talked about. But one thing I need to…can you talk about some of the changes, a lot of the changes that you made to the business, I found really impressive, and I think a lot of these were an enormous part of the growth, if not all attributable to all of the growth that you had. So what were some of the things that you did to change after taking over for me?
Clayton: I had made a list of some ideas of things that I wanted to focus on, but going into it right off the get-go, there was a lot I had to learn first, but after getting through that, going down that list, one of the things I really wanted to do was get to know my suppliers well, and so I really focused on building those relationships. I felt like it was really a part and parcel of the business to offer great customer service. And so having strong relationships with my suppliers was important to being able to execute on that.
I worked a lot on the website as well, not in terms of making huge changes, but I made a lot of small changes, just like moving the needle constantly every day a little bit, and that probably, over time, ends up being hundreds of changes over a couple of years in the aggregate, and it might be things like correcting a sentence. I was an English major, and so I’m really attentive to how I want sentences to read from my own perspective, and so I would make certain changes. There was a tonality in some of the messaging I changed to make it more my own voice and what I call earnest marketing, really trying to communicate with the customers.
And then things like I just chased down every single lead. Like I’d said earlier, I wrote that check to try and achieve a certain degree of success, and I was not going to fail, at least not from a lack of effort on my part. And so any phone call that I missed, I would make sure I returned it. I will return emails on weekends. I just wanted to be able to make sure that there was never a moment where somebody wanted to buy a trolling motor and I wasn’t able to serve that need.
And I did some other smaller things, like guerilla marketing in terms of when things would go wrong with the customer situation, like if they didn’t get it, the shipping time was exceptionally long, or if the product was damaged, or if there was such a bad customer service issue, or I dropped the ball or something happened. I’m really trying to reach out to that customer and do what I could do to correct the situation and make it really personal, and whether it was refunding them or offering them a small product or just trying to connect on a human level. I wanted to make sure that everybody had a positive experience.
Andrew: And you’ve earned the title…I think this is awesome. You’ve earned the title in the trolling motor world online, the Trolling Motor Whisperer. Is that right?
Clayton: At least for one person.
Andrew: Well, you had someone call who asked like, “Is this Clayton? Like the Clayton? Like the Trolling Motor Whisperer?” Is that how it went down?
Clayton: That’s exactly how I went down, and I gathered from that moment on that I have been written up in a lot of fishing forums, and people were talking back and forth and say, “Hey, you got a call Clayton. You got to call Clayton.” And he got me on the phone, and I think he was shocked that he got me on the phone thinking that there was going to be this multi-hundred person operations selling trolling motors and anyway, sold him a trolling motor.
Andrew: And one thing you’ve mentioned in the past to me, too, is you genuinely enjoy getting on the phone and talking to your customers, which are predominantly, I’m going to stereotype here, but they’re predominantly men. They’re predominantly, probably I’m guessing 40 to 60 years old. They’re sportsmen. They, of course, love fishing. But you really enjoyed getting on the phone and just talking and shooting the breeze with them.
Clayton: I absolutely love it, and I have to say the thing I really had no sense of when I bought the business was just how much I was going to love that. I’ve always loved sales. I come from the background of sales. I like talking to people, but waking up every day and talking to this type of customer has been a really great way to start your day. When you think about it, I’m talking to guys who are…they’re passionate about fishing, just like men are passionate about their sports.
These guys are passionate about fishing. And here they are, they have saved their dollars. They’ve done research, and they’re fired up. They’re about ready to spend a thousand bucks on something that brings them joy. And as I joked with some guys, it’s propulsion unit to get them away from their wives. And so they’re in this great frame of mind. They’re in a good mood when they call, and I’m the recipient of that energy, and I meet it halfway, and so it’s been a lot of fun. That’s a good group of customers to talk to.
Andrew: One thing I think that’s impossible to measure really hard to maybe attribute with analytics and all these kinds of things, but when you get somebody on the phone when you call somebody, and especially for eCommerce as service-based business, you can tell in about five seconds if they’re reading from a script, if they’re just going through the motions, or if they’re genuinely happy to be on the phone with you. And the latter is very rare. It’s a difficult thing to achieve. You only know it when you hear it, but it’s so incredibly powerful. And I think subconsciously, we have such more of an affinity towards brands that do that. And I think it’s probably one of the biggest underrated aspects of retention and reputation and building a brand, but it’s incredibly hard to be able to scale out at the same time.
Andrew: So how much of the fact that you are an owner-operator and you are the man who is running the show, it was your business, every sale was your dollar, and you were also the guy on the front lines providing just world-class customer service, how much of the fact that you are the owner-operator would you attribute to the growth?
Clayton: I think a huge amount, both from what I previously mentioned just in terms of chasing down every lead, because if I didn’t do it, nobody else was going to do it, and leads are dollars. So from that perspective, I was highly motivated to do it because that money was going in my pocket, but the second part that you touched on, which is the authenticity that an owner-operator has and being able to speak to their customer, I think that also has a huge, huge impact on a microlevel, like in the moment on that phone call, but then on a macrolevel where that customer in turn goes out and says, “Hey, I had a really good experience with this person,” and tells the guy in his marina who’s in the next sleepover, or the guy in his fishing club, or the guy in his past tournament, and on and on and on. And that’s something, you point out right, it’s very hard. It depends what industry, but generally it’s very hard to scale. Larger companies try and create a culture around it.
In my case, I’m lucky. I fish and I’ve grown up boating and have owned boats and have used trolling motors, and so it’s very easy for me to communicate with these guys and relate to them because I actually know what I’m talking about, and I know the questions to ask based on my own personal experiences, and I know how to tie a bowline, and I know how to deal with boats. So right away, I can connect, and I think it just gives me and my business a lot of credibility, and that makes people want to buy from us.
Andrew: And this is something that at least myself, I was never able to do, because I think the first time I saw a trolling motor was six months in when I went to Cabela’s and for the first time in my life, noticed the trolling motor section, because I’d been selling them, and people would call up, and, “Hey, I got a 24-foot center console boat. You know what I’m talking about?” And for the first year and a half, I had no idea what they were talking about. “Oh, yeah, of course.” You can, of course, learn anything like we did.
Clayton: It’s fun also because invariably, every time these guys call, the first thing out of their mouth is I’m so and so from a certain geographical location, and this is my boat, and I immediately Google image-search their boat, and I joke with my friends, “I look at boat porn all day long.” So I immediately see what kind of boat they have, and from there, we go. And a lot of times, I either knew their boat or now I do, but I knew a lot of them from the get-go.
Andrew: What’s been the steepest learning curve about buying your first business and coming on board and going through the process of taking ownership and growing it?
Clayton: I think everything. Going back in my mind that first day I bought the business, we did the hand off on a Friday, and of course, I had time with a standing guy ski trip that I’d been doing for almost 20 years, and I wasn’t going to give that ski trip up. So I go into this guy’s ski trip with just a new eCommerce business and very little idea of how to run it. So from day one, it was pretty overwhelming, but to get into the nitty-gritty, I think from the early days, it was basically the eCommerce ecosystem. So how do things work? What are the technologies involved? Getting comfortable with just everything from ring central, phones, the phone system, to how trouble tickets would work and following up, and then what the sales trends are either on a daily basis or weekly basis or monthly basis, and just how to get a grasp of all that, and it just took time.
It was never like anything that was going to sink me. I never felt that, and as a few weeks went past, I became more comfortable that obviously are the things I was going to get better at and learn more. So that was the initial nitty-gritty, but a lot of it changes as it goes. So there’s also been new products, learning about the customers and the industry. That was something I wanted to really get up to speed on, and now here I am two years later and I’m looking at actually doing a redesign because there’s a lot of pieces of technology within the website that need to be changed, and the front end’s branding needs to be changed. And so here I am two years on learning all about web design in this day and age. And I’ve done a lot of web design over the previous years, but every time you do it, when you step back into it after a period of time, there’s new stuff to learn.
In summary, I don’t know that the learning curve was so steepy on those first three or four weeks, but it’s more that there’s just constantly things to learn and to stay on top of because there’s opportunities to improve your business if you do that.
Andrew: Has owning this business changed your life for better and for worse?
Clayton: Yeah, good question. I sought out eCommerce because of a place I was at in my life, and changes I wanted to make. The buying of business was synonymous with actually moving geographically from a place I’d lived for 15 years to another state. And when I was transitioning out of a career in technology in San Francisco and running a manufacturing business and being involved in Internet businesses but at a larger scale and with more people involved and I was burnt out on the whole, for lack of a better word, corporate world. And I sought out eCommerce because I wanted to have flexibility and self-determination and autonomy, and I wanted to be able to not have to go and wrangle with people to get on the plane and go somewhere, wherever I wanted.
And so I have to say, in a way, my life is kind of different beyond my wildest dreams or expectations, and I say that with a big smile on my face. But I sought that out, but then actually achieving it was really amazing, and it’s been a really great two years in that sense, just without going too far into my personal life. I have reason to be able to visit family in a couple of different locales and being able to just sort of…and my parents are getting a little older, and so being able to move my business to them on a whim or if there’s an emergency, has been a godsend.
And then on a personal level just in terms of my personal, what I like to do, I love to ski and I love to travel and this business is seasonal. And it’s great because when ski season starts, my business is getting quiet. And so I can ramp up my skiing, but still keep my working moving forward. And then as you know this, you didn’t…or I don’t know if you do now with your young child, but you ran your business from Europe and Asia. And I haven’t gone to Asia, but I did take a trip to Europe, so it was a little hectic because I was in my busy season, but I managed to do it and it’s all about making it work.
But what was great about it is I didn’t have to ask anybody. I didn’t have to negotiate with anybody. I just said I’m going to make this happen, and I bought a ticket and went to Europe, and then I sold trolley motors from Paris.
Andrew: Two things that are always, always thought of in the same sentence, trolley motors in Paris. They just go together.
Clayton: Ironically, actually, I was on that trip, and a guy called me, who is an American living in France.
Andrew: Oh my goodness. And did you tell him, do you say, “Hey, I’m actually in Paris right now.”
Clayton: Oh god, absolutely I told him.
Andrew: So what’s next for you, Clayton? Are you going to continue to grow the business? Are you going to sell it? Are you going to try and diversify into other types of fishing gear, start another side venture? What’s coming up for you?
Clayton: I definitely have no plans to sell it. As I described, the business really brings me joy and satisfaction and purpose, and I’ve been excited by the growth and I think there’s more opportunity for growth. But I also just bought it two years ago, so for me it’s still new. And I find that there’s always more to learn. There’s always a new piece of technology, something to study. I love going on eCommerceFuel and reading through the forums and talking to people, and I’ve learned a lot through that, and I think there’s just so much more to apply to the business.
And my focus right now, I’m actually following in your footsteps and migrating from Magento to Shopify and getting ready to re-launch the website. To give you an idea, over the last 18 months, I can’t remember the last time I looked at it, but let’s call it for the last two years, mobile traffic has just exploded. And as you know, I didn’t have a mobile-optimized website, so there’s a huge opportunity there that drove…I have to get with the times and then with mobile getting K amount, I was like, “Oh my god, is my business going to tank now?” And that sort of a hiccup.
At the same time, I’m always looking at new opportunities and talking to people, and I do some small investing on the side. And I’ve definitely thought about what opportunity is there to expand into similar related verticals or products in the fishing sports world.
Andrew: Have you thought about…I’m sure you have. How seriously have you thought about bringing somebody on board to help with customer service and phones and operations day-to-day? On one hand, of course, that would free you up to work on high-level aspects of the business or pursue other things, but on the other hand, like we talked about earlier, the growth of the business, so much of it has been attributed to the incredible amount of passion and a focus to detail and focus on incredible service that you’ve provided. So what are you thinking? Where are you at with that?
Clayton: Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot for a couple of different reasons. The big negative on being, what I’ll call a solopreneur here, solo operator, solo entrepreneur, I cannot leave this business and I can’t leave it alone. I cannot say, “Ugh, I’m going to not answer the phones or not respond to emails for a week and go to some far off land and really decompress.” There is a ball-and-chain aspect to it. I get paranoid that what happens if I get the flu in the peak season, or what happens if I had to have a surgery, or what happens if I just get burnt out?
So in the back of my mind, that is an omnipresent worry. And at some point, I will eventually just not want to do this every day. Everything in my life changes. So I have some thoughts on how I might bring in a person to help, and incumbent upon that is I want to be in the business for a longer period of time just to see, to really believe that there’s consistency and to really see if I can grow it some more and get it to a level where I’d say, “Okay, well, I’m making enough money for me. I’m okay with bringing somebody else in, carrying in that burden.”
Bringing somebody else in, that opens up a whole new set of opportunities and also a can of worms. You’ve got a new liability, and what happens if the person isn’t right or if they decide to change and leave, now you’ve grown your business on the back of somebody else.
So growth isn’t easy. If you ask me if there’s something I stress about, there’s a little bit of that. So not quite ready to bring somebody on, but that is something that’s going to be in the cards the next year or too, and I’ve got some interesting ideas around it.
Andrew: And one parting question for you, Clayton. What advice would you give someone looking to buy their first eCommerce store after you’ve had a couple successful years in the trenches?
Clayton: I would say, speaking from my own experience, really to care about the market or the product you choose. You’re going to be living with it, truly, and there’s no substitute for passion and authenticity as we discussed. So I think there’s a lot of people who start businesses or buy businesses where they don’t care about the product or they don’t know about the product. I know you didn’t know a lot about trolling motors and you successfully started this business and sold it. It’s not that you can’t do it, but I think from where I sit, caring about the market or the product is important, having some passion that you can bring with it.
I think, again, speaking from personal experience, educate yourself. I started from a blank slate. I started with a spreadsheet. Before I even chose to focus on eCommerce, I started with a spreadsheet where I had a like column and a dislike column of what I liked and disliked in business, and by creating that little spreadsheet and really focusing in on the things I will like to do and dislike to do, I ended up with eCommerce. But at that point, I didn’t know anything, so I started going online. I came across you and your businesses. I talked to people. I talked to brokers. I went through a couple of due diligence processes through a broker with other businesses, and through that I learned how multiples worked, and where there were things to be nervous about, and where there was opportunity and where there were patterns. So really do your due diligence, really become as much of an expert as you can before you jump.
Other things I think that are important, I think giving yourself a long runway, the worst thing in the world is to feel desperate. And I come from doing startups and being involved in startups and investing in startups, and god, when you do not have a lot of runway, it is a miserable feeling, because you just have your back against the wall. And I learned that hard way, and now I know when you buy a business or start a business, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and so you need to give yourself time to adjust to be able to fix things if they go wrong. So whether it’s having a side job or having enough money in the bank, give yourself a runway.
And I think in tandem with that, as a buyer of a business, don’t buy what you can’t afford to lose. It went well for me in the situation, but there is…the Internet is, I’m sure, and the world is littered with stories of people who have bought losing prospects, and so don’t get so fraught in a limb that you’re a gambler instead of an investor. And I think those would be my words of wisdom.
Andrew: Clayton Chrisman, it’s so incredible to hear what you’ve done with the business the last two years. I couldn’t be happy for you and the success you’ve had with it. It’s obviously very well-deserved. Thanks for being with the come back on, two years later and share the story. And thanks for buying the business.
Clayton: You’re welcome. It’s a tough check to write, I will say, but it’s definitely been an exciting couple years and going through the whole process with you, couldn’t have been a better process. I think we talked about that last time, but I’ll say it again, you were a joy to do business with. And I think one of the great things about doing a deal is when two people walk away from the deal as happy campers, and so I hope you still feel that’s true for us.
Andrew: Oh, agreed. Any business deal like this, it’s involved, but it went about as smoothly as I think it could have. And, yeah, working with you was fantastic. It’s nice when…I’m going through a housing deal right now and with buyers that you just trust implicitly, and it’s never good to trust everyone. You get burned if you trust everybody, and even if you trust some people more than you should, but for some of the little details, if you have a working relationship that you feel like you don’t have to sign every little thing and document every little thing, if you can get a rapport like that going into something, it makes deals so much easier to work through, and I felt like we were able to build that in the short time that we worked together, which is nice.
Clayton: Absolutely. Thank you.
Andrew: Well, Clayton, thanks so much again, and here’s to another two fantastic years.
Andrew: That’s going to do it for this week. If you enjoyed the episode, make sure to check the eCommerceFuel private forum, a vetted community exclusively for six- and seven-figure store owners, with over 600 experienced members and thousands of monthly comments, it’s the best place online to connect with and learn from other successful store owners to help you grow your business. To learn more and apply, visit eCommercefuel.com/forum. Thanks so much for listening, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again next Friday.
Photo via TrollingMotors.net