What does it take to be a successful eCommerce entrepreneur? Just ask Matthew Hoffman, creator of the fun, popular eCommerce brand Bleacher Creatures!
Matthew attributes his success to two key things:
- He was extremely fortunate in his career proceeding to be able to learn from talented entrepreneurs, before taking his own eCommerce leap.
- His optimistic approach to business, where you celebrate the achievements, no matter how small, and always aspire to be better than the day before.
Matthew is one of the nicest eCommerce go-getters we’ve met, but don’t let his modesty and grace distract you from his mega achievements. In just eight years, he has managed to not only grow the Bleacher Creatures brand to the 7-figure mark but has joined ranks with Uncanny Brands, which is growing into an $8-figure company. A million-dollar eCommerce business whose goal is creating brand-new niches, finding sustainable growth opportunities for longevity, and building strong relationships with their manufacturing and brand partners.
We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Matthew to find out how it all got started and what it takes to keep his awesome brand on top!
1. Share with us a bit of background about you and the brand you’ve created.
I was in the, what I would call, ‘pop-culture licensing’ business for about 22 years. In the late nineties, I worked at a catalog company, right when the transformation for eCommerce was taking place, which ran catalogs and websites for a lot of American sports leagues. From there, I was part of the startup Fanatics, which manages online stores for all the sports leagues and biggest online retailers for licensed sports. Wanting to learn more about manufacturing, my next stop was a company called Majestic Athletics, which makes uniforms for sports teams in the United States, where I stayed until I took the entrepreneurial leap.
I started Bleacher Creatures about 8 years ago, with the desire to make people smile. I reached out to investors who helped finance our launch, and within the first six months we did over a million dollars in revenue, which meant we were able to get a run rate straight away and have grown steadily year-on-year.
Earlier this year, we joined a company called Uncanny Brands, which has allowed us to be part of a silo of brands. Bleacher Creatures is now lucky enough to be under their umbrella, along with a few top brands that cover a variety of categories. One of these brands is Uncanny Appliances, which makes and sells pop-culture products such as waffle makers, toasters and popcorn makers with themes that include the likes of Star Wars and Jurassic World.
Our third brand, called Phenom Gallery, is where we do limited edition collector artwork. Ultimately, our group goal is to come up with or create an additional underutilized category every 18-24 months – a place in the market that allows us to be special and create products that connect people to their passions. In other words, to create our own niches.
2. What are your key responsibilities within the business?
I would say, the big three, which are sales, product development, and setting priorities and strategies for different projects. Followed closely by number four: relationship-building.
3. Do you sell mostly online or offline?
The biggest percentage (80%) of our current business is offline, selling to key retailers throughout the world. In the US, for example, our products are available at Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond. The reason we have had such success with offline selling is that our products make great impulse buys because of their size, novelty, value and price. A lot of our customers don’t know who we are; they just see our products in-store or at games, and buy on a whim.
We originally built this business with kids in mind, but the reality is that our end customers are adults, with 50% buying for kids. Kids don’t have buying power online; by placing products in-store, it gives them the opportunity to see the products and voice their desire for them. Additionally, we have had great success selling – with partners – at the arenas where games are happening. This allows customers to shop in the moment, buying products relevant to the game while they’re watching that game.
We do sell online on our site and on Amazon, as they have such a big percentage of the eCommerce market, and our retail partners – the likes of Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond, etc. – sell our products on their sites as well.
4. Describe Bleacher Creatures’ target market
As I mentioned, our market was originally kids, or parents buying products for their kids. The products were designed in such a way that they are both action figures to role-play with and soft enough to cuddle.
However, we have found that half of our customers are adults who are buying our products for themselves. They love the player, team or character, and they display them in their offices or game rooms, or post selfies with them on social media. We’ve even had customers buy a Bleacher Creature, set up an Instagram, Facebook or Twitter account, and then regularly post pictures with their creatures, building an account around their character.
For example, there is one guy in Australia who has a Lord of the Rings Bleacher Creature and has created an account where he takes his creature to awesome locations and posts those pictures on the account. Another Instagram account is dedicated to baseball creatures, where the Chicago native creates cartoons around his Bleacher Creature collections.
Additionally, we have found that half of the adults that do buy our products, collect them. There are some people who own one of every Bleacher Creature ever made. It has really expanded beyond what we originally thought.
5. How did you come up with your Bleacher Creatures business idea?
I was inspired by my children, our love for sports and the Muppets.
I have three children and would go to different sporting events and want to bring things back for them. But I couldn’t seem to find any good-quality toys of the teams or iconic players. Iconic players such LeBron James, Steph Curry, Messi or Ronaldo. It was from there that the idea for Bleacher Creatures was born- the idea to create plush versions of these top, iconic players. A cross between an action figure and a soft toy. Eight years ago, we started in sports and have since grown to include entertainment, including wrestling and superheroes.
Bleachers was my first entrepreneurial leap. I have been very lucky to have worked with some phenomenal entrepreneurs, who have been big mentors to me. But that being said, you never know what it is going to be like going into business for yourself until you do it. You can take courses, people can tell you, but you won’t know until you do it.
If you had said to me 8 years ago, “You’re going to own a plush toy company,” I would have said you were crazy. That was never in the cards at all, and just shows where life can take you. We now make the best-quality plush toys on the market. We have ten team members and two offices: a main office in Philadelphia and a second, New York City office. And we’re having a blast doing it!
6. How did you choose the right manufacturer for your products?
Admittedly, finding the right manufacturer was a long process. I bought a variety of products and tried to figure out where they were making them, through internet searches. Once I had a list of possible manufacturers, I then sent emails out to different factories, asking them if they could take our product sketches and turn them into what we were looking for. We eventually found a factory we thought we would be happy with – one we believed we could partner with – and after seeing samples and figuring out the economics, we were on our way.
We believe it’s important that you build strong partnerships in business; that it can’t just be a one-way street where you just tell people what to do. Instead, you need your manufacturers to buy into what you’re doing. To partner with you. Which is why over time, there’s been a lot of work between us on our product, continuously asking ourselves things like, ‘How do we become better,’ ‘How can we make them look more like the athlete,’ or, ‘How do we improve price value for our customers.’ If we have challenges, we problem-solve and innovate together to find the best solution. We visit the factories on a regular basis to understand the process, to make sure the workers are being treated right, that all regulations are being followed, and to be creative with our partners at the factory where we share product ideas.
7. Do you have any fulfillment challenges?
The biggest challenge we have, because our business has grown so much, is staying on top of quick inventory replenishment. We now use a third-party warehouse and fulfillment company for Bleachers and our other brands, so that all our stock is in one place, and we can offer competitive shipping options and value to our customers.
8. Take us through your price-planning strategy.
We had a look at what else was on the market and where they are priced, at the financials of people in licensed businesses, and at the toy business specifically. We determined their margins, and then thought about how we could build a financial model around these types of expectations.
It has always been a balancing act. We consider ourselves to be premium quality, so we’re at a higher price point of the market. We know the quality of our product, the design, and what goes into each product, is the best. So we can sell our customers on that, but we also wanted a price point that was a value for customers and they don’t have to think too hard about purchasing.
9. What’s the best-selling Bleacher Creature of all time?
When the Pope visited the United States in 2015, we got the idea to partner up with the people bringing him, to create a Pope Francis Bleacher Creature. Because you never know how it will go, it was a big risk for us. However, when the Pope arrived in New York, you saw him get off the plane and walk up to the crowds. You saw him smile and walk up to someone who was holding one of our Pope Bleacher Creatures. He smiled at the Creature, blessed it, took a picture with it, and kept it for himself.
And, of course, it sold out like crazy! What really made us extra happy about that story is that we were able to make the Pope smile.
I have been told, by Vatican visitors, that the Pope still has it.
10. What’s your current best-seller and how did you come up with the idea?
To answer that I need to give your readers a little bit more background, for those not in the know.
The desert region of Las Vegas, Nevada, has gotten their first professional ice-hockey team, called Vegas Golden Knights. Despite being a brand-new team, they have had an amazing year and made the Stanley Cup Finals. They designed a mascot named Chance who is a Gila monster, that represents their team. And, because it’s Vegas, they really know how to put on a show, ensuring that their games offer an amazing experience.
Therefore, seeing a market in how the city has really embraced their team, we reacted quite quickly and created Chance plush toys in different sizes, which are selling like crazy. We only launched this product at the beginning of this year, and we’re excited to see how this product does during our busiest time of year: Christmas sales.
As far as category or league partnership products we have, they are all doing well, of course, but the NBA is a really exciting category to watch, mainly because there are a lot more international games and players now. So no matter whether you are – China, Australia, Israel or anywhere you go – everyone seems to know NBA basketball and who the top players are, which is why we’re seeing great growth with these products.
Generally speaking though, a lot of leagues are branching out internationally, with WWE branching out to the Middle East and NFL having games in China next year.
11. How do you decide on which partners to join with?
The main thing we look for when choosing partners are for brands that have potential to go international. As you know, the world is becoming smaller, and you want to be able to leverage what you do not just for us in the United States, but worldwide.
12. What are your top ways to drive traffic and market yourselves online?
We continually optimize to drive traffic, and continually build new strategies because the landscape keeps changing. Because we market for other people, meaning we market for our products being sold on Amazon and partner sites, pinpointing the ROIs is hard to do.
When you are marketing your product, and people see it, they might come to your site or they might go to Amazon or your partner sites or buy in-store with retailers. This unusual situation makes it difficult for us to remarket to these buyers, which is an eCommerce seller’s goal. That’s why Coupon Pop is so important to us. It gives us an opportunity to build a database, through high-value discounts, that we can remarket to, and is therefore is a very big part of our strategy.
Additionally, in the next couple of months we will be launching a new social strategy that involves building Instagram, and other social platform, content pages. The objective of these pages is not to necessarily get a sale, but to build our brand and story – to push our ‘make you smile’ objective. Based on that exposure and good will this content creates, we, of course, will be reaching more people who will think our products would be great for them or their kids.
Plus, we’re going to put more effort into content marketing, which we believe is very important, and have hired someone specifically to help build our blog content, push more Instagram content, implement more video and Facebook Live content.
13. What is your email marketing strategy?
We’re not really promotion-based; we are very selective about our email frequency. For now, we send a few promotion/deal emails a year, more, of course, over the holidays, and then additionally we send two emails a week catering to different demographics and changing up the messaging. These include brand stories like, ‘Here’s what’s new with us,’ or, ‘What’s going on in the sport that you like,’ (such as wrestling or the NBA) and, ‘Here’s what we have.’ We want to stay in front of people, but we also don’t want to become noise – it’s a balancing act.
Over and above that, we have automated emails such as our abandoned cart emails, which are sent 24 hours after someone has visited our site and abandoned a cart.
14. What are the must-have apps that you are using?
Coupon Pop is a must; we love it! We also use an app called Snappet, which embeds our Instagram posts onto our website and makes them clickable, sellable posts; and, of course, Mailchimp does a great job. In general, we are huge fans of Shopify. We’ve tried others that we have spent a lot of money on, but we’ve come back to Shopify.
15. What are the big future plans for your brand?
We’re working on two new exciting partnership licenses, but unfortunately we can’t reveal them yet. We’re also continuing to look for our next business brand to add to the fold, which we plan to launch in the summer of 2019. Our main objective moving forward is just to keep the momentum going.
16. What’s the no.1 piece of advice you would give new eCommerce entrepreneurs?
Everybody experiences failure; it’s important to understand that 99% of successful businesses don’t happen overnight. You will encounter some failures along the way, so be prepared to weather the storm.
Every day is a grind, so make sure you celebrate the wins you have every day. Take stock of your accomplishments, celebrate what you’ve achieved daily, no matter how small these achievements are, and this momentum will ensure you keep moving forward. Every day, you should be asking yourself what you did well, what you won at and what you can do tomorrow to do better – even on days when there are road blocks; then you will be on the road to success.
Additionally, it’s important to understand that you can only control what you can control. You can do everything right in business and you can make all the right decisions, but there are going to be things that happen outside of you. Things like factory or weather delays or economic changes, which you can’t control. I think, to be successful, you are going to have to lean back and know that as long as you have done everything in your power to win, even if you lose, appreciate your effort regardless of the outcome.
17. If you could go back to the very beginning, is there anything you would do differently?
I wish I had stayed on Shopify and not gone to another platform in between!
On a serious note – sure, there are plenty of mistakes I have made that I would do differently, such as getting business capital or managing relationships differently. But on the flip side, if I hadn’t made those mistakes, I wouldn’t be better now. For all the things that didn’t work out that I am disappointed about, I accept that I am in the good place I am today because of those failures.
We hope you found Matthew as inspiring, and Bleacher Creatures as fun as we did! Looking for more secret tips from eCommerce in the trenches? Visit the Success Story section of our blog.
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