(The following article is property of Avenue Code, LLC, and was originally published with permission at TotalRetail on January 7, 2019.)
Jeremy Parker is the founder of Swag.com, a custom promotional products e-commerce retailer. He spoke with Avenue Code about the importance of passionate entrepreneurship and focusing on consumers’ core needs.
Avenue Code: Swag.com customizes an impressive breadth of promotional products for Facebook, Google, Amazon.com, WeWork, Microsoft, Harry’s, Starbucks, Netflix, and more. How did you become so driven to create?
Jeremy Parker: My dad and brother are entrepreneurs, so I guess it's in my blood. I've also been fortunate to work alongside some amazing entrepreneurs. A few years ago, I started a company with my brother and Jesse Itzler. Jesse wrote the Knicks theme song, "Go NY Go," co-founded Marquis Jet, is a partner in Zico Coconut Water, and an owner of the Atlanta Hawks.
AC: How has a creative degree in film production helped you run an e-commerce business?
JP: I wouldn’t have called film production entrepreneurial when I was studying it, but it is. Filmmaking is creating. I realized early on that I didn’t love filmmaking enough to make a career out of it, but storytelling has played a big role in helping me build businesses. With both film and business, there’s risk involved. You go in knowing you may not make it. I’ve run several startups, and some have succeeded and some have failed.
AC: How do you move on from failure?
JP: I always say to myself "win or learn." When you approach life this way, with this mentality, you're always going to end up ahead. The goal of an entrepreneur, and frankly a person, is to continuously learn and improve. Oftentimes in failure you learn the most.
AC: Can you tell us about the journey of Swag.com?
JP: I became interested in promotional products 10 years ago. When I was 22, I launched a high-end T-shirt line. This was in 2007, when the recession hit. So every store we sold to either closed or stopped taking new orders. Not wanting my business to die, I created a market-related pricing model: for every 100 points that the DOW dropped, we would give the customer a discount on their order. This initiative was written about in several major blogs, including Ad Age. It also led me to meet the CEO of MV Sport, one of the largest players in the promotional products industry. I ended up running a creative division under its label, and I started to fall in love with the industry. I worked there for three years and then decided to pursue some other interests.
But over the course of my career, I always followed the industry, and in 2016 it hit me: the promotional products industry is a $40 billion industry. There are 30,000 players in the space. There's no clear winner. The industry hasn't changed much in the last 10 years since I was working under MV Sport. However, the buyer has changed. The buyer is now a millennial and has very different needs and wants. I thought it would be the perfect time to build a brand that appeals to today's buyer.
AC: What challenges does your business face?
JP: Traditionally, promotional product buyers expect a lot of hand-holding. They honestly don't really want this, they're just trained to think that things should be clunky and manual because that's how it has typically been. We're giving them a better option. We're streamlining the entire process and making it really easy to buy quality promotional products that people will actually want to keep. When you're changing someone's behavior, it's always a challenge. However, once they see how easy the platform is, they never look back.
In 2016, we launched the business, and we decided we wanted to hold off on building anything until we fully understood the pain points of our customers. What did they hate about the current buying experience, and what did they love? Only after we really understood the challenges and handled tons of manual orders ourselves did we understand the platform that we needed to build. Now the platform is working, and we're able to easily process orders. It's all about awareness and teaching our potential customers that promotional swag buying no longer needs to be a pain.
AC: Do you buy or build most of your tech?
JP: We buy certain tech, like transactional email and marketing automation — more of the stuff that's not unique to us in any way. But we build whenever possible. We originally intended to use Shopify, but our industry requires dynamic pricing based on quantity, print locations, and how many colors are in the print, and we learned quickly that this wouldn't be possible from an out-of-the-box solution. So we developed our own proprietary platform. For example, now when a customer uploads their logo, our system can not only detect how many colors are in the logo, but also identify the nearest pantone match so that we make sure to print exactly the right shade. There's obviously a big difference between Coca-Cola red and YouTube red, and we need to make sure that our customers are extremely happy with everything that we produce.
Now that we're fully custom, we're able to quickly build anything that we think will benefit the customer's experience. There are no barriers.
AC: What has been a highlight for you in the last few years? Was there a moment, either personally or for Swag.com, when you knew you were on the right track?
JP: For the first year of business, our goal was to make sure we understood the model and what was needed before we built a single line of code. In order to really learn, we had to handle orders manually.
The moment we knew we were on the right track was when we got our second customer — WeWork. Our strategy from the beginning was to start from the top by getting a few major companies to be customers. This would give everyone else confidence that we would do a great job for them.
We got Facebook first, but really it was the second customer that proved to me we were on the right path. WeWork asked us who else we worked with, and when we said “Facebook,” they felt confident in working with us and gave us a large order to handle. We delivered, and everyone loved the products! That’s when we became confident in our top-down strategy and in our ability to handle large orders and deliver amazing results. This was a defining moment for us. We now have thousands of customers, and I’ll always remember that first WeWork order.
AC: E-commerce is changing every day. What are some of the constants that don't change, and what, in your opinion, is the single most important ingredient for success in today’s retail environment?
JP: Obviously, successful companies need to offer products that people want to buy. That's a given. But because there are so many companies trying to sell the same thing and get market share, having a strong brand is the only way to stand out amidst all of the noise. Having a strong brand that gives customers confidence is essential. Once you've built a strong brand that differentiates you from your competitors, you have to really focus on making the buying experience effortless by removing all of the friction.
Because we want Swag.com to be synonymous with quality, we've had to be extremely careful with our curation, offering only the best of what's out there. Over 95 percent of the products we tested didn't make the cut. We also offer unique, quality items not traditionally found in the promo industry from brands like Bellroy Bags, Knomo London, and Incase. Our belief is that people no longer want to buy throwaway promotional products. Doing so not only costs your company money, as no one will use it, but it also tarnishes your brand — the exact opposite of your intention. Swag.com is a quality source, only offering products that people will actually want to keep.
AC: How is technology influencing Swag.com’s next move?
JP: We're constantly trying to further streamline and automate the process both for our customers to have an easier time finding the right product and placing an order, and also for our operations team to give them the tools to process orders more easily. We like to think of our website as the ultimate salesperson who never sleeps. We're fully investing in our platform because we know that technology improvements will allow us to remove all of the friction. We want the entire process of buying swag to be as effortless as ordering food online.
AC: What are your top three books and why? How have they impacted you?
- Jesse Itzler’s “Living with a SEAL.” David Goggins, a Navy Seal and the toughest man on the planet, moved into Jesse's family home and taught him how to think differently. Jesse wrote about the experience. It’s all about kicking complacency.
- Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog.” This book helps to put the entrepreneurial process in perspective because it reminds you that even the biggest companies don’t happen overnight — there’s a process. It's the small wins that add up.
- Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup.” This book teaches you to build the minimal viable product, test it, and quickly gather data. All decisions should be based on the real world and how people use your products. Companies need to learn this as fast as possible so they can quickly iterate and figure out what the right product for their customers really is.
AC: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
JP: Before you start anything, be super passionate about it. There are so many hurdles and challenges you’ll face, so if you’re not passionate, you’re guaranteed to fail. Once you're passionate about something, just start. Don't overthink it. It's not going to work out the way you intended anyway, so there's no point in overthinking it.
AC: Thanks for talking with us today, Jeremy. It’s inspiring to hear the story of Swag.com, as well as your thoughts on passionate entrepreneurship based on real consumer needs.
Anna Vander Wall
Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.