One of the biggest perks of being an eCommerce business owner is the ability to work anywhere in the world. David Couillard, founder of HardCases.ca works from the comfort of his 23′ Airstream trailer with his family in tow.
I knew that I had to talk with David after hearing his story in the forum not only as a vagabond but as a formidable eCommerce entrepreneur given that he travels while simultaneously running not one, but two successful eCommerce businesses. In today’s episode, David shares his tips for creating a strong, engaged audience and talks about how he runs his businesses while seeing what the world has to offer.
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The Full Conversation
Andrew: Hey, guys, Andrew here and welcome to the eCommerceFuel Podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in today. And today on the show, I invited David Couillard on to come from Hardcases.ca more than anything just because I wanted to get to know the guy. He’s got such a cool story. He joined the private forum [SP] maybe two to three months ago, and apart from being a great guy, contributing a ton, he’s got a very unique lifestyle. He lives on the road, runs his business from an Airstream trailer traveling all over the place. And he’s done some really cool things among others, building up 150,000 plus Facebook community around poop bags, which just seems impossible. And between his cool lifestyle, I wanted to bring him on and just talk to him, get to know the guy. So we dive into his lifestyle, how he travels, how he built his businesses, a bunch of stuff. It’s a fun discussion. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Quickly, before we do dive into that discussion, eCommerceFuel Live 7th, 8th and 9th of October in Nashville. Gonna be a ton of fun. I spent the last couple of days going through the speaker proposals, outlining for the agenda in terms of what we’re gonna be covering for the keynotes and the breakouts. And there’s some really good sessions. I’m excited to roll this out in the very near future. You can grab tickets still at live.ecommercefuel.com. And again, this is an event for six and seven figure store owners, people who work for store owners, or professionals in the space with at least a year of experience. I would love to have you come if you’re interested. All right. That being said, let’s go ahead and give into today’s discussion with David.
David, I have some much I want to get into. You’ve got a really interesting story, but can you give me a sense, really quickly, just right off the bat here. On the business side, what kind of businesses do you own? What do you do for work?
David’s Business Background
David: I own a few businesses. I started in 2000 a web design company, and it eventually evolved into web development. I started as a web designer then started learning code on my own and became a web developer. So right now I start also some eCommerce website like hardcases.ca. So I manage this entire website. And I’ve also started some projects with some friends who became pretty big called Earth Rated. We sell eco-friendly poop bags, actually.
Andrew: I’m excited to get into that story. There’s some cool facets to that business. So do you still do web design as work as well as running those two businesses?
David: Yeah, right now I’ve started to slow down on the web design or the work. I’ve kept my clients so I do a lot of recurring work for them. It’s mostly consulting and little fixes on the websites that I’ve built, improvement, marketing tactics, some PPC and SEO improvement. I’m there for them as their expert. So basically, I spend a lot of time on hardcases, and I’ve also spent some times back on Earth Rated, but now I’m actually a silent partner in the company.
Life on the Road
Andrew: You’re originally from Quebec but where do you live right now?
David: Right now we live on the road. Yeah, we are originally from Montreal, but we moved out of Montreal a year ago. And we thought it would be a six-month trip, but it turns out it’s now a year and still going.
Andrew: It’s amazing. I guess that we’re going to get into the business stuff of vagabond myself. I’m really excited to dive into this part of lifestyle story of yours. Tell me about the road. Let’s maybe talk about the Airstream first. Can you give me a sense like what does it look like? Just, in a nutshell, how big is it? What’s it equipped with if you walk in? What’s in there? What does your home look like away from home? I guess it’s your home all the time now but…
David: Yeah. It’s a small home. It’s 140 square foot. It’s a 23 footer Airstream International 2009. So we bought it used, in the U.S. actually, in 2013, and the international model is pretty well-equipped. It’s got lots of windows. You have AC, you got heat through a furnace with propane. We have a stove with propane, and there’s a microwave that we barely use or never use, actually. And we have space for five people, but I must say that it’s made for a couple mostly. I’ve had my stepmother for 10 days once in the Airstream and that was enough. I was ready for her take a flight back home.
Andrew: So who travels with you regularly?
David: Right now, I have my girlfriend, Brigitte and my son, Elium who’s almost two years old, and our two dogs, one medium, one small, which do take a lot of space.
Andrew: So as someone who can attest to being on the road for a week in a van with a couple of daughters and my wife, who I love more than anyone in the world, man it can get cramped. So I’m just trying to think, that was for a week, and so thinking through doing this indefinitely with three people and a couple of dogs. How do you do that? Does that get crazy cramped on a regular basis that you have to deal with that? And how do you get work done from the road? It’s one thing to even just be able to have a comfortable life there, but to be able to be in a productive environment, how do you make that work?
David: Right now, I must say that we do have our times where there’s a bit of tension because of… the kid is growing so my girlfriend is buying a little bit more toys and there’s only one little hallway and then you have toys everywhere, you have the dogs moving around. We’re lucky because it’s not raining too much right now, but when it rains the dogs are wet and it gets humid, the doors are closed. So we do get a lot of tension. That’s something we’ve been talking about these days, maybe increasing the size to 25. That’s not much on paper but it’s a little bit wider and longer and the bedroom’s a little bit more like a bedroom and not inside the kitchen almost. So definitely something that we’re going to be increasing in size pretty soon.
For the work part, I must say that I need to schedule my work. I can’t really be just hoping on some work like this. I need to be in my zone. Sometimes I either put some good headphones on so I’m in my working flow, but then my son comes down and he taps on my shoulder or taps on my leg. He wants attention. It’s really hard not to ignore him. I hate doing this. So if I have to, I will go work in a cafe or somewhere calm. Like right now I’m at the registry information office. It’s pretty calm here. But yeah, basically you need to schedule your work. I find that a little more productive, actually because I’m actually… I schedule work and it gets done in two hours instead of just stretching it over a day sometimes where you just start surfing on Facebook and doing other things than work.
Andrew: Yeah, I’ve thought about that, too. The less time you have, the more you have to make it count. It’s amazing, that little adage that something takes as long as you have time for. If you have a week to plan something, you’ll get it done in a week and if you’ve got three months, you’ll stretch it out, which is crazy.
How often do you move? And when you do move, how much do you have to plan? Obviously, internet is such a huge part of… it’s your lifeline. And being on the road sometimes, I imagine, you’ve got a great internet and other times, I imagine, it’s a nightmare trying to get a connection. So is that a really integral part about the routes you plan?
Andrew: Yeah. Right now since I’m managing a few companies especially eCommerce where you get phone calls, and emails coming in, and orders coming in throughout the day, I do have to plan based on the internet. We’re lucky enough that LTE is pretty much available almost everywhere. If you want to hop off the grid, for sure, you can find spots where it won’t work. But worst case scenario I get 3G or if I don’t have any internet, then I’m going to go to the closest town somewhere where there’s a cafe that I can take my emails and just do some work a little bit and then get back to the Airstream and relax and maybe get some more work done without any connections. Sometimes that’s where you nobody to bother you or nobody is coming in. It gets a little bit less stressed.
Basically, we move maybe every five days. Sometimes we try to stay somewhere just to appreciate the environment unless it’s really some place we don’t like. We’re going to move out. But we travel for a day or two and then we stop for three, five or… we’ve stayed in some places for a month, and it was so nice because we like the area. And you start to get into the city and you get the feeling, the vibe, and it’s always hard to leave because you’ve maybe made friends during that time, too.
Andrew: Yeah, I found that, I think most people would agree, that probably hardest part about traveling isn’t actually being on the road and being in a new place. It’s the friction that comes with moving places all the time. That’s the hardest. The three to four day or three to five days sounds like a nice sweet spot. Where’s the best place you’ve ever parked your Airstream? If you had to set it up in one spot, pull the wheels off, it was never going to move again, it’s final resting place, where would that camp spot be? Where would that parking spot be?
David: It’s certainly hard to find one spot. Each spot is unique. You either meet people or you get into an area that’s magical. It’s the first time you go there. I must say that one spot that I really liked was our first boondocking place where we were unhooked. No electricity, no water, no dump. So you have to keep your water reserve and that was actually in a dry lake bed near Joshua Tree, and we also met some amazing friends there. So we were in a circle of Airstreams with a campfire in the middle. We stayed there almost for a week just having good chats, meeting people that were on the road for a few years already, and getting inspired by them, and just exchanging experiences and seeing new ways on life.
The Business of Hard Cases
Andrew: David, we want to get into the business side of things a little bit. So hardcases.ca, again, in a nutshell, what does that business do and how did you get into it? What do you sell and what’s the genesis story?
David: Funny enough, I was using their cases because I do photography also. So I was using some of their cases to lug my cameras and photography gear. So I liked the product. I saw that their website was a little bit old and I… since I liked the product, it was Canadian-made, it was not too far from where I live, and I knew a friend there that was working at the company. I asked for a meeting and I was offering them to actually redo their website because I was really interested in the product. So I was pitching for a new website design. And they were not ready for it. So right there, in the meeting, I got the idea of asking them if I could become an online distributor, and I would pay for the website. I would do it all by myself. All I needed was a drop shipping and maybe a good profit margin. And that’s how it all started.
Andrew: Very clever… and what are the rough revenues for year on that business?
David: Lately it’s been growing really quickly. I was in the 150 per year, and now I’m going to be like between 200 and 250 per year just for 2015.
Andrew: Great. And, in terms of what they are, hardcases.ca, I described them when I originally saw them, I was like, “Hey, David, these look a lot like Pelican cases, very heavy duty plastic cases, a lot of times watertight. They’re shock absorbent.” You said, “Yeah, they’re like Pelican cases but way better.”
David: Well, yeah. They’re made in Canada. They’re not made in China. The design is a little bit like more of… it’s a modern style. It’s got nicer finish, details that makes the case a lifestyle luggage that you want to have with you. It’s not just something to put your product in or your cameras. It’s something that you want to show off. Most people who buy the cases say that their friends are asking questions all the time about the case once they show them to their friends actually.
Andrew: Just to clarify, so you don’t make these, you just partnered with the manufacturer and dropship them, correct?
David: Exactly. I don’t make the cases. But I get a lot of people online who think I’m actually the manufacturer.
Staying Competitive with Dropshipping
Andrew: How do you, in terms of the future, stay competitive? Do you have like an exclusivity agreement with the manufacturer? For me, I’m in the dropshipping space as well. I’m looking down the road. I see that being…you either have to have a very particular niche where you can add a lot of value informationally or you need a proprietary product. So what prevents other people from coming in, going to that supplier and driving your price down and making it harder to compete?
David: I don’t have exclusivity. There’s a lot of other stores selling online. Most of the competitors though they sell tons of other gear. So they don’t just sell cases. I see my advantage as, since I’m a web developer, I can be pretty quick. I know how to do great SEO. I know how to do design. I can test really quickly. So I do rank well for some of the keywords that I’ve been targeting especially in Canada actually. So that gives me a good advantage, but it’s still not in my control. I’m in the control of Google right there. The manufacturer does sell online, but they do sell at the manufacturer price right now. But there’s nothing keeping them from eventually lowering their prices.
The advantage that I have is mostly my experience in eCommerce business and online businesses versus my competitors. I do have a pretty good profit margin though also on the cases versus a regular dropship company that might be in the 30s. I start at 65 on the profit margin. So I can play with my free shipping and also on my prices for the other clients.
Andrew: Very nice. Does the manufacturer have strong minimum advertise pricing, price controls? I found with drop shipping that’s one way of… if you do have a supplier or manufacturer who’s committed to that, then all of a sudden it prevents everyone coming in on a price war. Instead of having to compete on price with legions of other people, someone like you who has a ton of experience with the product, who can put together a gorgeous website, by the way, your website is really nicely done.
David: Thank you.
Andrew: All of a sudden it gives you a leg because price is taken out of the equation and all of a sudden people are purchasing based on quality and experience. Is that something that your supplier does?
David: I wish they did. They don’t have the MAP price. A lot of the dealers have been asking for it because there’s a little bit of a price war going on sometimes. I’ve had complaints about my site being a little bit too low. I could be five bucks lower and I’m going to get complaints from the brick and mortar stores that have to sell a bit higher because they have other fees to pay for. So basically, I don’t know if the manufacturer is eventually going to do a MAP price, but I think that would be a great move for everybody. And also, it would keep the perceptible quality of the cases actually, instead of lowering the price so low that they look like any other kind of cheaper cases out there.
The Day to Day Operations
Andrew: So who runs the operations? I mean you’ve got a phone number on the site. Who’s answering the calls? Who’s answering the emails? I know you’re definitely sometimes connected, but given your lifestyle, a lot of times you’re probably not in touch, don’t have email, so how do the operation side of that work?
David: You don’t see me right now, but I’m raising my hand. I do everything. I do the phone calls. I do also the emails answering, the customer support. The things I don’t do is if I get an order, I will create a forward email to Plasticase, the Nanuk manufacturer, and they will take care of shipping the cases for me. But besides that, I do everything else. I have my phone numbers. I will answer the phone when I can. If I’m in the Airstream, my son’s crying and screaming, I might go outside. But then there’s usually question about a product online so I have to go back in the Airstream and try to check the problem with the customer or something. It’s either I snap my wife and tell her to go out with the son outside. So it depends. If I’m not going to answer the phone, most people would either leave a message or write to me.
Andrew: And is your business incorporated in… the cases are in Canada, I believe of course, and the supplier. You’re on the road in the U.S. so I’m guessing that you’re drop shipping from Canada, and I’d imagine a lot of your customers… are most of them in Canada or are most of them in the U.S.?
David: Yeah, I would say 90% Canadian, 10% U.S.
Andrew: Oh, wow. Okay. Interesting. So do you see… the U.S. is obviously the gorilla in the market in terms of people, and customers. Places like Canada, Australia a lot of times those eCommerce markets are much smaller, but I think also they’re probably less competitive. Is that something that you’ve seen? Is that something that… selling 10% to the U.S. maybe that’s hard to gauge, but do you think there’s a lot of opportunity in a country like Canada, given some of the complexities. I know, on my side, it’s not crazy complicated but shipping to a Canadian customer from the U.S. is… there’s a lot more logistical issues and potential things you have to worry about and think through as opposed to just shipping within the country. So do you think there is an opportunity in Canada? How big is that opportunity and do you think it’s something that the merchant should be taking advantage of from the U.S.?
David: Yeah, that’s a great question. You hit the thing there. It’s the less competition there is in Canada is actually what makes my strength right now because I can have great prices and ship all over Canada because I’m doing drop ship. I can rank better also in Google actually. So since I’m selling Canadian product, I have a lot of Canadians buying in Canada and they like dealing with the owner. I get this kind of really personal approach on my business. Since I’m also by myself, I know I might not be able to drive the sales to a million or two millions unless I start selling a lot more in the U.S. right now. But right now it satisfies me. Keeps me busy.
I’m thinking about getting maybe a VA for some of the work sometimes, but I still like the fact that I have direct contact with Canadian customers. Doing the shipping in the U.S. is actually easy because Plasticase, the manufacturer, have a warehouse just south of the border so orders will ship a day later, but they will still ship from that warehouse. So they get all over to the U.S. right now. And shipping is such… it’s much cheaper in the U.S. than it is in Canada. If I ship to Vancouver from Montreal, one case can cost me $75 and if I do the same thing from the east side to the west in the U.S., it might just be $40 or something like that.
Challenges of a Canadian Merchant
Andrew: Is there… with Canadian shopping online, I imagine still a lot of online purchases from Canada come from the U.S. just because there’s probably more selection. A lot of retailers are based in the U.S., and you can be honest. Does it annoy Canadians that a lot of their purchases do come from the U.S.? Is there kind of thing like, “We have to order from the U.S.” A lot of times there’s issues, there’s delays in shipping, we have to pay more, there’s this brokerage fees that UPS slaps on when they come. How much of annoyance is that to Canadian customers ordering across the border? And is it a huge thing where they can order intra-country from another Canadian merchant that makes it so much easier?
David: I do get a lot of customers emphasizing the fact that they’re buying Canadian and they like it. They really like that fact. I do put it also in my comments if somebody’s saying that he saw the case cheaper on Amazon.com. Right now, the currency exchange is like 20% or something. So they will certainly pay cheaper in Canada. So I bring that up. It’s like, “It’s a Canadian product. You’re buying in Canada. It’s going to be cheaper. You won’t have any borders or taxes to pay in a border. Your case is going to get to you maybe in two days instead of getting to you in a week.” So at the moment, I’ve got a lot of advantages because of the currency exchange, but I know if that changes to be par or something that Amazon.com is so easy for people to type in. And I do have a lot of people who are shopping for prices. But I have my other, maybe 20%, that shop because they’re buying Canadian. So that’s the 80-20% right there. Those 20% customers who are recurring customers and they talk to me like I’m their friend is definitely something that gets in the advantage account for me.
Building a Community Around Poop Bags
Andrew: David, I think one of the most interest things about your story and your experience even maybe more so than your lifestyle in the Airstream is the following, you mentioned right when you came into the private forum as a new member that you built a Facebook community with over 160,000 members’ likes on your page around poop bags, of all the things in the world. And I was thinking, “Man, if you can do this around poop bags, something that is probably to someone who just thinks about it off the cuff, about as unsexy of a niche as you can imagine. Who’s going to go like a poop bag Facebook page, right? You can do it for anything. Gives hope to people like me who’s peddling radio equipment. So how…earthrated.com is the name of that product in that story, and we’re going to get the backstory in a minute, but how did you do that? How did you build such a massive community around something that’s seemingly would be so hard to do that with?
David: Do you own a dog or…?
Andrew: I do not. I live in probably one of the U.S.’s most dog-friendly cities, but I don’t own a dog.
David: Dog people, they like to talk about their dogs. They love their dogs and dog people walk their dogs, most of them, walk their dogs at least twice a day. So they interact with a product that’s called a poop bag at least twice a day taking a poop. So it seems so like a basic product out there but it’s still an important product. It’s something you don’t want to break on your walk with your dog. It’s something that people can get really picky about. So, yeah, building that Facebook community was all about asking people about their dogs, asking them questions, what they like. People like to talk about their dogs all the time, and once we got the product on there with a nice brand, people started to talk about it at the dog park. You’re picking up your poop in front of somebody else and you’re like, “Ooh, what’s that bag? It looks cool. It smells lavander. Look, it’s really strong. Look, my hand won’t go through it.” So people start talking about it like that.
We created contests. We were sending gifts to all the people like huge boxes of poop bags with T-shirts, and dispensers, and notepads. So basically, people had this huge box at home and they had to share them with friends. So by sharing them with friends the branches got spread. On all our marketing, all our boxes, we ask people, “Just go on Facebook and you like us and share your experience and your pictures.” In the dog world, people will talk to you about their dogs for hours. They like being on Facebook and showing their dog pictures. So they’re going to come up on your company’s Facebook page and start chatting about it and liking your page like that.
Andrew: So did the company, earthrated.com, did it…this is what you co-founded or founded, correct?
David: Yeah, exactly. I started with one partner in the business a while ago, and we grew up to five partners eventually. And then we have about 20 employees right now. We have a guy working in China. We have people also in the U.S. doing some customer service, but mostly the company is in Montreal in an office.
Andrew: Wow. Okay and so the genesis of that was… did the idea come from you were just out with your dogs with one of those dinky little plastic bags, crinkles, and just kind of looks gross and you just thought, “Why don’t we have better bags for this stuff. It’s crazy.” And then you just created the product. Did you create the product? Did someone else create it and then you came on board?
David: No. Yeah, I did get the idea, not because the bags that I was using were poorly made, but the marketing of them was bad. They were eco-friendly bags, but they were coming to you in a colorful plastic, hard presentation, and the bags were black. It didn’t feel right. You’re selling eco-friendly stuff, but it looks dark and too colorful on the product packaging side.
So I came up to my friend who had a lot of contacts in China. He was already doing some imports. So I talked to him about maybe creating a product in a recycled box, something really two colors, really fun but, at the same time, really eco-friendly, earth-friendly. So we went on with that and made a big emphasis on dominating the market with a nice brand. I was doing all of the marketing in the brand side, the website, all the packaging. So we started with $50,000. We invested all we had in there and started to get some personal loans eventually when it started working, and yeah, it just went snowball like that.
Andrew: David, it was so cool hearing the story and looking forward to meet you at ECF Live in Nashville in October. Are you going to be putting that your itinerary, bringing the family along and just camp outside the hotel in the Airstream?
David: I wish we could do that. Since it’s a little bit further from where we’ll be, I think I’m actually just gonna fly in and be there for the event with you guys. My wife’s going to stay with the baby and the two dogs. Camping near cities is not always easy. So it’s better that I leave them somewhere where they’re safe, and I come down for a few days and have fun.
Andrew: It’ll be great to meet. I remember last year, Ben Jenkins, who is also a designer..you guys are really similar actually in a lot of regards. He had an RV that he came, he brought in, and he parked it right in the back of a hotel and in between sessions…
David: Oh, really?
Andrew: Yeah, at one point. He’s like, “Hey, Andrew, come check this out.” We walked to this little staff service access and into the back, and he had just chatted with the hotel, and they let him park right in the back in this private parking lot. We just went back and hung out in his rig for a little bit. He was camped right there.
David: That could definitely be fun, though. I can see that happening. We’ll see. I’d like to tell my girlfriend not to make any plans too long in the future. I like surprises. Sometimes we just meet people through Instagram and they’re going to be somewhere near us. So we just go on the other way and meet them for a week. So it’s fun not knowing exactly where you’re going also. So that could be a good idea, though.
Andrew: David, it’s so cool to hear. We’ll link up to your Instagram account as well in the show notes. If you’re a photography buff and like travel and eCommerce. Gorgeous, gorgeous pictures over at his account.
David: Thank you.
Andrew: Yeah, you’re doing a really nice job. David, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on and looking forward to seeing you shortly in Nashville.
David: Thank you very much for having me on the show, Andrew.
Andrew: That’s going do it for this week. If you enjoyed the episode, make sure to check out the eCommerce Fuel 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.
What Was Mentioned
- Connect with David: David Couillard | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Instagram
- Hard Cases
- Earth Rated
Photo: Instagram / David Couillard