"Our customers are our best advocates."
When I bought our first electric vehicle earlier this year, I did what a lot of new car buyers do and went accessory shopping. It was not long before I started seeing ads for aftermarket accessory vendor Abstract Ocean, and reading about them on forums.
Our guest today is Peter White, co-founder of Abstract Ocean. In 2013, Peter and his wife picked up their first Tesla. Aside from being the spark for Abstract Ocean, it proved completely life-changing (cue the Tesla grin - even now, years later, driving is a pure and utter joy - despite traffic).
The Unofficial Shopify Podcast
Kurt Elster: Okay, I am joined today by Peter White, who… You go by Pete, right?
Peter White: Yeah. Unless I’m being bad, then Peter typically.
Kurt Elster: And you are an IT project manager. I think based on your accent we can guess you are British, but you’re not-
Peter White: Yes.
Kurt Elster: Where are you now?
Peter White: I am in the DFW area, right in between Dallas and Forth Worth, and I’ve been here since-
Kurt Elster: How long has that been going on?
Peter White: Since 2008. I was going back and forth since ’03 for business, and then I finally moved over in ’08.
Kurt Elster: Okay, and how do you… You’re still here. I assume you enjoy it.
Peter White: Yeah. There’s pros and cons I think to every country. Probably shouldn’t talk about the cons right now given the timing, but-
Kurt Elster: You love it here! It’s fantastic! Nothing is bad.
Peter White: Hopefully one of those will go away in a month or so. But no, no, overall, I enjoy it. I enjoy the weather. You know, the weather we’ve got here today is nice and grey, which is a typical summer’s day in the U.K., so I love it.
Kurt Elster: I was gonna say I have been. I’ve been to London several times. And it’s just as far as I can tell, it’s just endless grey.
Peter White: It is. There’s no-
Kurt Elster: Which is like a Chicago winter, so I was used to it.
Peter White: There’s no extremes. It’s just if you get a sunny day… That’s why, they can never figure out why they sell more convertibles in the U.K. than anywhere else. It’s because the sun never comes out, so when it does, you need to pop that roof down no matter what time of year it is. That’s how it works. All the cars over there are convertibles.
Kurt Elster: I see. You know what? If I go to London again, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. So, you are the founder of a store, Abstract Ocean. AbstractOcean.com. What does AO sell?
Peter White: So, we sell accessories for Tesla vehicles.
Kurt Elster: How long have you been doing that?
Peter White: We started in 2013. It was a hobby. So, kind of rewinding the story a little bit, I did a test drive in a Tesla probably start of 2012 or thereabouts, and we had to fly to Miami to do that, so who the hell flies to-
Kurt Elster: This is when… This was like it just came out. It brand new, right?
Peter White: Yeah. It was they were doing test drives. We reserved and then they were doing test drives for reservation holders, and because we’re in Texas and Tesla can’t sell in Texas, blah, blah, blah, we had to go to Miami for the test drive. So, that’s what we did. We fell in love with the car as everyone does, right? As soon as you put your foot down for the first time in a Tesla, people just love the cars.
Kurt Elster: My car guy friends always go, “Well, don’t you miss the sound of the exhaust and the engine noise and the cold start crackle?” And I said, “No, because the absolutely addicting…” And this is the crazy part. I don’t even have the fastest one. And it still has like 490-foot pounds of torque with 5,000 pounds, but it’ll still do zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds. And then the coolest part is that it’s not silent. A lot of car noise actually turns out to be road noise, but when you full throttle in an electric car with two motors, think about that. Dual motors. You get like this stereo Jetsons whine that I am now… I have grown to love and appreciate in the same way you would love traditional car noises.
Peter White: Exactly.
Kurt Elster: But it’s that instant on, flat, smooth, perfect torque curve of an electric car that’s just like addictive. So, oh, I totally get it.
Peter White: Yeah. It’s mental. It’s mental. And you know, your grandma could get zero to 60 the same time as anybody else, right? Whereas-
Kurt Elster: And it’s so repeatable.
Peter White: It is.
Kurt Elster: That’s what’s really crazy about it, the eerie consistency. I think we are not singing the praises of whatever magic Tesla used to do their traction control enough.
Peter White: No, exactly. And I think there are plenty of criticisms for Tesla, but they sorted out the engineering from day one, and that was the key I think for them to survive this long and now dominate not just the EV market, but the automotive market in general.
Kurt Elster: Oh, I went from like, “I hate Tesla. I think Elon Musk is a monster,” to, “I bought a used one for my wife,” to now I’m like, “All right, we sold all our gas cars. I got a preorder for Cyber Truck and we’re in the permitting process for the Tesla solar roof.”
Peter White: Right.
Kurt Elster: I did a complete 180 within three weeks of buying one.
Peter White: Yep.
Kurt Elster: Just unreal. So, there’s a lot of really passionate owners behind it and you sell Tesla accessories. How do you even get started in that? So, you flew, you reserved one, you drove it, you loved it, you took ownership, I’m jumping ahead and I’m guessing here. Am I right?
Peter White: Yes. Absolutely. And you know, from reservation to delivery I think was probably about 18 months or thereabouts. And during those 18 months, the forums online were just starting up. Tesla Motors Club in particular. And everyone just-
Kurt Elster: That’s like the biggest online forum now, right?
Peter White: Yeah. Pretty much. Yeah. There’s a few of them now, because since Model 3 and Y came out, the audience has expanded dramatically, but back then it felt like a community. I don’t know how many users they have. Maybe 5,000, maybe 10, but it felt like you knew kind of almost everybody. And everyone just had time on their hands waiting for their damn Tesla to arrive. So, you’re posting pictures of your garage where it had like a Tesla shrine with the logo and LED backlighting and everything, and the Tesla red on the back wall, and it looked really good, but-
Kurt Elster: I can actually… Shout out to one of our show’s sponsors, venntov. Josh Highland, who co-owns venntov, has two Teslas, and his garage is in fact painted red, with red and white tile on the floor, and this huge vinyl logo. So yeah, you’re describing that, and I was like, “Oh, man.” I literally have a… I know this customer avatar.
Peter White: Yeah. Absolutely.
Kurt Elster: And I’m not far off. Check back next summer, I’m sure I’ll be in there with the red paint.
Peter White: Exactly. So, you know, just killing time till the car arrived, and then it arrived. Loved it. I still remember driving back from the Tesla service center, which at the time was in a grody part of Dallas, for sure. But it was just fantastic, and for there the one big regret… The first car I had I think was an ’85, so kind of the middle. Not the performance version. But the one big regret was I wanted the 21-inch wheels. Now, on reflection that’s a stupid idea, because those tires just pop all the damn time, and they wear out so quick.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. You have a very… On a 21-inch wheel, you end up with a very thin sidewall.
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: So, it looks very dramatic. You’re rolling on rubber bands. But like you hit a pothole, there’s nothing to cushion it. So, you bend this now very expensive wheel. I just put 20s on mine. Of course, I wanted 21s. But yeah, for exactly that reason, I’m like… I’m just gonna be bending these things on a weekly or an annual basis.
Peter White: Yeah. Exactly. So, I wanted to somehow figure out a way to make $5,000 to buy a set of wheels, and I was on the forum, and back then Model S and subsequently Model X came with these little slippery black keys. No one had a way to put them on the keyring. You couldn’t really get a keyring around them.
Kurt Elster: They still do. They still make the same stupid key fob.
Peter White: They do. Yeah. And even Model 3 and Y.
Kurt Elster: This is the most shockingly ill-conceived part of the car, is this key fob. Tell me about this thing.
Peter White: Well, I think if you look at Model X, I think that car was built for Elon at the time. His family, the way he operates. It’s a passion project for Elon and that includes the key, as well. He was very proud of it. Showed that off very, very early days, and it’s just-
Kurt Elster: Sorry, Elon.
Peter White: It’s just this little black shiny thing that looks kind of like the Model S and the Model X. There’s some buttons on it. Of course, they’re not marked or anything, because you just kind of gotta stab at it and figure it out. But you know, there’s just no way to put it on a keyring. So, we kind of created some neoprene fob pockets. This was all developed completely online on the Tesla Motors Club. This whole project was in the open, and it kind of went backs and forths, and eventually I think I got 50 or 100 of them made and they sort of sold out in a day, which, okay, that’s a fun hobby.
And I remember probably towards the end of 2013, so six months after we sort of formed the company, which is a very loose term because it was all kind of by accident as a hobby, we went up to Nebraska for Thanksgiving with the family and packed it all up in a shoe box or two totes the size of a shoe box, and we carried on running the business from up there because we’ve always said we want to ship everything within a day, and we did that then. We still do it now. But you know, to move the business now it would take many, many, many shoe boxes, for sure, because we have sort of busted out of the house, built a new property to put everything in there. We’re busting out of that. It’s just growing exponentially at the moment.
And that’s because we hitched our wagon to the right horse, right? I mean, back in 2013, no one knew if Tesla would survive. But they’ve obviously done fantastically well, and we’ve just benefitted from that.
Kurt Elster: Yes. Yeah. No one wanted to be the guy who bought, who spent 100 grand on a Fisker Karma, only to discover the company went bankrupt after you took delivery. That’s a real thing that happened.
Peter White: Yep.
Kurt Elster: Because now it’s like, “Oh. Well, you want an electric car? Well, get a Tesla.” Seven years ago, it was a real gamble.
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: And so, you had this like… What grew out of it was this really active community, like there’s a vocal… I would assume it’s like a vocal minority of Tesla owners. And you were one of those early adopters, and you were part of that community. And what’s so fun about these grassroots communities built around a mutual love is they start talking about it, and ideas are born out of it, and so it sounds like you were posting on this forum quite a bit and were saying, “Hey, I found this pain or problem in that this key fob… The buttons are unlabeled. It’s slippery. It’s about the size of a Hot Wheels car. It’s clearly the scale is a Hot Wheels car. And it looks like a Hot Wheels car, but it’s actually your remote to pop your trunk and open your doors. And it’s totally unlabeled and there’s no way to put a key ring on it.” It’s a very bizarre… It looks cool but turned out to be totally impractical.
And so, I assume you posted on a forum with these concerns and said, “You know, maybe I could do something about this.”
Peter White: Yeah. And we posted the whole development life cycle, and it’s still there on the forum if you look back, but you know-
Kurt Elster: Oh, cool.
Peter White: For instance, the prototypes and everything else. Our whole history is there in the early days, and it just kind of evolved, and from the first batch of 100, we kind of evolved it some more. Then we moved onto making them out of silicone rubber. We got sort of leather, and pleather, synthetic leather versions as well. And that was kind of our core product for a long time. Back when S and X were the only models that Tesla sold, they weren’t selling that many of those, right? It’s a very niche crowd. And you knew the crowd very well, because it was still part of the community. And then, all of a sudden in 2018, Model 3 launched and it… The whole dynamic changed. Obviously, in terms of volume, in terms of the target audience, just in terms of the whole kind of explosion of Tesla accessories just went crazy at that point.
Kurt Elster: It’s true. That’s like… Yeah, that Model 3 really, really expanded things. Especially for the aftermarket around the cars. And so, you come up with this key fob holder to solve a pain or problem for owners. It’s grassroots. You develop the whole thing on a forum. You sell 100 of them. Well, now you’ve got this big, very successful business with this big catalog. What happened in between? What was the next move?
Peter White: It’s a good question, and I don’t like calling myself an entrepreneur, but when I look back over my whole past, I’ve always had side hustles. You know, when I was 14 I was doing two paper rounds and marking up the papers, so getting up at 4:00 AM to go write at the top of a newspaper. And you know, I had back then, I was working shifts at a bank, so I had a regular job as well, and then I was washing cars. My big claim to fame was that I used to was the Rolls Royce for a guy called Alan Sugar, who’s know a lord over in the U.K., but he hosts The Apprentice over in the U.K., as well.
And somehow or another I had a fish tank business and I managed to install a fish tank in the reception of his company and a few other companies. Just a whole bunch of weird sort of hustles, but I’ve never really had anything that stuck for very long. And then it turns out that I think the main thing about this business is that it’s a passion. I know the market. I feel like I know the market inside and out, obviously know all of our products inside and out. We don’t sell anything that we would not be ecstatic to use in our own cars. We have a couple of Teslas, a Model 1 and a Model 3 at the moment, but we use all the stuff we sell.
You know, if you go on Amazon, there’s plenty of junk on there. There’s some good stuff, too, but there’s so many clone products that are just rubbish from no-name companies. So, probably about two years ago when orders started picking up, the audience started expanding, we made a conscious decision, one, to exit Amazon, and two, to focus on quality of the product and quality of service, and not just get involved in a race to the bottom, because that’s a zero sum game.
Kurt Elster: Oh, so as this business, as you see velocity picking up and there’s a new model out, because originally they only sold the one car, now they got two. And we know then there’s two more coming down the road. You said, “Hey, we’re not gonna sell on Amazon?”
Peter White: Yeah. We were on Amazon for probably two years off and on. Everyone has horror stories, right? Amazon have too much control over your business. You know, at one point we were selling screen protectors, which very obviously are sort of one-use things, right? And we would get customers returning to Amazon saying, “Well, this arrived used.” Well, of course it didn’t arrive used. That’s just not a thing with screen protectors. But you know-
Kurt Elster: Right. Yeah. Good luck putting the backing back on that.
Peter White: Right. Exactly. Yeah, so all of a sudden Amazon restricts your listing, and then, well, there goes the revenue for a couple of weeks while you fight with seller… whatever they’re called. Seller services or something in India. And it’s just very, very difficult, and it just became so, so frustrating for us. We didn’t have control over our sales channel, which is horrible.
So, yeah, at that point we had a website, as well, since 2013, which was on BigCommerce.
Sound board: Eww!
Peter White: Yeah. And you know, we grew with BigCommerce since then, so it was going well, but I think Amazon served a purpose for a while. You know, we were on there while S and X were sort of the main cars that Tesla was selling. It got our name out there. But over time, it just became more sensible to kind of own the brand, own the sales channel, and just bring it all in house.
Kurt Elster: So, what was the thing that made… that helped you drive consistent growth? Was it word of mouth? Was it participation in grassroots communities like Tesla Motors Club? What was it?
Peter White: Yeah. It’s all of the above, I think. I really… I sort of… You know, everything we do is done from a personal perspective. So, again, we try not to sell the junk. You can go on Alibaba and find all kinds of stuff. But people know me in the Tesla community. You know, I take it personally. Back in the day, we would get maybe one or two support tickets a week, and you know, I love those days. Now, we get that amount every hour, and-
Kurt Elster: Oh, geez.
Peter White: But it’s okay. You know, we really try and maintain that personal connection with the customers, because they’re still owners. They’re still fellow owners to us, so we really want to maintain that relationship. And you know, I think a lot of companies go through this sort of transition where they think, “Well, we’re hiding behind this eCommerce wall.” So, do we pretend to be this big, giant company with all kinds of facilities and capabilities, or do we be this little mom and pop, kind of homebrew store? And we don’t really want to be either of those two things. We’re bigger than a mom and pop shop and we’re more competent than that, I think. But we do want to maintain that sort of personal aspect.
You know, the whole business is myself, my wife, and we have other people helping us, but we own it, we take everything very personally, and if we get a ticket complaining about a product or something like that, then we fix it and we deal with it as quickly as we can. But it’s really important for us to sort of maintain our reputation in the marketplace more than anything else.
Kurt Elster: I like that idea, that you’re like, “Look, we’re not pretending to be something we’re not.” How do you communicate, it sounds like owning the size of the business is important to you. How do you think you communicate that?
Peter White: I think we’ve gone through many iterations. If you look at that, newsletters that we send out sporadically, we don’t have a good cadence on those yet. We’re working on that. But you know, we toggle between different personalities. And we’ve done some crude A-B testing to see what people like and what people don’t like, and they tend not to like the preamble, which is just whatever’s in my head or my wife’s head that week, so we sort of dropped that and we kind of focus more on product.
But you know, we try to inject some personality in everything we say and do, particularly in the support desk, right? I mean, selling stuff is one thing, but supporting it after sales is another thing, and I think people rely more and more on that, and the differentiator between us and an Amazon, or Walmart, or any of those guys, is the service is very generic by design, because they’re a quantity seller. And we’re not. We’re a niche seller. We know the product. We use it in our cars, so we can always talk to it from a technical perspective and from an installation perspective.
So, you know, that’s where we put our focus and most people that make contact with us through support, A, love the experience, but B, enjoy kind of the banter. And that’s good and bad. You know, Crystal in particular will have ongoing chats for weeks after the issue is long since resolved, which you know, from a cost perspective maybe not the best use of time, but from a relation perspective, it’s a great use of time and we’re totally okay with that.
Kurt Elster: Well, and I think one of the issues with the aftermarket space in like… aftermarket for any community, but automotive aftermarket particularly is you tend to see this one brand will do… The market research is very public, because you can go on a forum, and you can see these are the parts that people are installing, and these are the parts people are talking about. So, then it’s very easy to have confidence to add these items to your catalog. So, I think within this space, having a differentiating factor in the form of like, “We’re the real deal. We’re genuinely invested. We’re real people. You can talk to us.” I think that has an ROI in terms of like long-term customer lifetime value.
Peter White: Yeah. No, I agree. And we run a sentiment analysis tool, which just kind of scours the web and the forums just for anything that mentions us or our competitors, and quite frequently now on forums, people will come to our defense if someone says something negative about us, and that’s great, right? Now our customers are by far our best advocates. So, when we don’t have to pay attention to that stuff, that’s fantastic. That’s when you have kind of a grassroots support base that takes care of some things for you, which is great.
Kurt Elster: Well, what’s this… You said this sentiment analysis tool. That sounds cool. What is that?
Peter White: I think it’s called SentiOne, and it just as I say, just you can put search terms in there. It just kind of pulls back the content, sends you a daily digest, and it helps because very frequently… You know, there’s several forums now. I can’t, I don’t have the time to be on them all the time, so it just surfaces the content that we need to take care of and respond to.
Kurt Elster: Is there… Do you see content that pops up where you go, “Well, this is concerning. I need to address this.” Like you watch it and then it flags stuff, and you go, “All right, I’m gonna go post and reply.”
Peter White: Yeah. More often than not it’s someone saying, “Well, should I buy my stuff from this company or this company?” And they mention us, they mention the other companies, so generally the conversation just happens without us and I just kind of keep an eye on it. But if there’s any kind of pertinent points I can drop in there, particularly with… Shipping is obviously a massive headache for everybody at the moment, so I can talk to that with some honesty and explain, “Well, you know, if you’re in Europe, you may want to do DHL rather than USPS, because it’ll get there.” But you know, I can just kind of be a bit more honest and have a better sort of conversation on a forum than I can on a webpage, on a static webpage where it’s just a bunch of words.
Kurt Elster: Right. And so, it sounds like you ship internationally, right?
Peter White: Yeah. I’d be kind of a… I can’t use the right word. You might need your bleep machine right now. I’d be kind of an ass if I didn’t ship internationally, because obviously I’m not from here originally. So, we set out originally saying it was a global company, and I have no regrets in doing that all. You know, some of our best customers are overseas, especially in countries like Norway, right? Where it’s the most populous country per capita for Tesla, because you buy a Tesla tax free or you can buy a BMW M5 and pay 47% tax.
Kurt Elster: Oh, geez!
Peter White: It’s a no brainer. There’s so many Teslas over there. So, we have a B2B channel as well, a wholesale channel, and most of that goes to Norway for wholesale, which is better for us because shipping internationally is difficult. It’s complicated. It’s customs. It’s duty. With COVID, USPS in particular, they’re starting to send stuff by boat when they run out of planes, and it’s just become a really tough year for shipping. And that’s the vast bulk of our support tickets at the moment, as well.
Kurt Elster: It’s just dealing, it’s just, “Hey, where’s my order?” And it’s overseas?
Peter White: Yeah. And we’ve got all kinds of tools on the website where people can see it, but you know, it’s slowly improving, but USPS and all the local mail carriers rely on commercial air traffic, right? So, if there’s no passenger flights flying, they don’t have planes to put the stuff on. So, it just piles up in New York, or Chicago, which is our two main hubs, and then they need to move it on somehow, so eventually there’s… and this was in the summer. It’s better now. I don’t think they’re using boats, but they put it on a boat to Amsterdam. And then from Amsterdam, it gets on a train and goes somewhere else in Europe. So, you know, a horrendous journey, and the tracking intervals are so slow, obviously, because when it’s on a boat it’s not doing anything for two or three weeks.
Kurt Elster: I was gonna say, how long does shipping something on a boat overseas take?
Peter White: It’s not the fastest. It’s not at all. The actual transit time I think is about 10 to 12 days, but then they’ve gotta unload the cargo, and it’s just… It’s an ugly, ugly process, and it’s not been very enjoyable for us or the customers, unfortunately. But it’s something that we’re constantly turning little dials and knobs and figuring out the best way to get over there for the lowest cost, but it’s difficult.
Kurt Elster: And it seems like… Is DHL the answer for international?
Peter White: DHL are rock solid. I’ve got nothing bad to say about them. Yeah. Even right up until Christmas, if we mail something today to the U.K., which is… Today’s a Tuesday. It’ll be there by Friday. You can virtually guarantee it every time.
Kurt Elster: Wow.
Peter White: But they have their own planes, right? So do UPS. They’re just slower. But having their own planes makes it a lot easier to move stuff around.
Kurt Elster: So, if you’re… We’re recording this, it’s December 15th. How do you feel about Shipageddon?
Peter White: For us, it didn’t really happen. If anything, it’s probably… It’s certainly better now than it was in the summer. Yeah, we didn’t really experience any issues. You know, we have obviously a daily pickup with UPS, and DHL, and USPS, and our volumes over the last few weeks, we started Black Friday a week early just to kind of help the European side of things and get that stuff out earlier, but we didn’t experience any particular issues.
Kurt Elster: When did you start your Black Friday sale?
Peter White: I think we started it on the 17th, so roughly a week or so early.
Kurt Elster: Do you think you’ll start it early next year?
Peter White: No. Don’t think so. It kind of prolonged… I think for every eCommerce company that does their own fulfillment, which we do, it prolongs the pain rather than getting over all in once, so it’s like ripping off the Band-Aid slowly or quickly. What do you want to do? So, no, not unless we need to. You know, we did it purely because we really wanted to encourage the international buyers to take care of business early on, because if they’re gonna be buying it after Thanksgiving, chances are good it’s not gonna get there before Christmas if they’re using the low cost shipping. DHL, no problem, but the lower cost stuff is just very slow at the moment.
Kurt Elster: One thing I was wondering about. So, on the site, you’re selling car parts, but they change… They’re specific to a vehicle. And you’re dealing with a company that has four vehicles, adding a fifth one, presumably a sixth. How do you deal with segmentation, where like if I buy for one car, you know what I’m interested in and you know what products will no longer be available or interesting to me. Do you do any segmentation around vehicle ownership?
Peter White: So, we started to. This is part of my journey on Klaviyo. So, we were on Mailchimp up until about a year ago or a year-and-a-half ago. We switched to Klaviyo. Love it. And we started to assign interests to our customers, so we can figure out generally what they’re driving from the products they purchase. But the Tesla world is a little bit different. You know, pretty much everything that works in a Model S works in Model X, and everything that works in Model 3 works in Model Y. That makes it quite simple. But then Tesla are constantly changing stuff. All the damn time. So, it becomes a little tricker. Model 3, the model year ’21 has just launched. That’s got a different center console. We sell a bunch of stuff to accessorize that part of the car.
So, now we need to kind of segment a little bit deeper. We need to make it clear on the website as well, what’s compatible with what model. And that’s kind of a constant challenge for us, trying to sort of surface that information where people actually take the time to read it, frankly. Because again, a lot of our support stuff is based on the customer buying the wrong product, and every time that happens, we try and be proactive and go back to the page, make the adjustments, and clarify a little bit more, just to get to the point where we’re selling the right stuff to the right people. But it’s an ongoing challenge and Tesla are constantly tweaking their cars, which may seem trivial, but sometimes it has a very quick impact on us.
Kurt Elster: Well, and one of the frustrating things is if they make a model change midyear, and this is true of any automaker. But yeah, if you have it’s like, “Well, if you have a 2017.5, this will fit, but otherwise it won’t. And by the way, good luck figuring out which model year yours is.”
Peter White: That’s the thing. Yeah. And you know, I’m in the middle of the Tesla world, so what I think is blindingly obvious is not at all obvious to someone that’s just bought their first Model Y or Model 3, and we have to be cognizant of that, and I’m not always, but I need to be, and we’re trying harder to figure that out. Because unlike just about every other manufacturer, you know, there may be launch car, and in three years time they facelift it, and then another three years time, they just relaunch a different version of it. Tesla are constantly evolving. Model S, our first Model S, the 2013 model is just nothing like a 2020 Model S at all, and Elon’s gone on record and said they’re making 10 to 20 changes every week on the cars. So, it’s just-
Kurt Elster: Oh, geez.
Peter White: And most of those are under the covers, there’s a lot of software as well. Some of those are material and they impact our products, as well.
Kurt Elster: Have you thought about using a vehicle fitment app like Easy YMM, so it’d be like you put in your year. 2017 Model S 100D.
Peter White: I have not. No, but that sounds like a great idea, so the same sort of thing that Amazon and eBay Motors uses? That kind-
Kurt Elster: Yes.
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: Yeah, so there’s several apps that will do this. It’s called YMM filtering. Year, make, model. I trialed a whole bunch of them. The one I like, we use this on CORSA, Volant, Carcaine, Overlander, they all run Easy YMM by NexusMedia. And it gives you… You can either have it like the simplest way it works is you give it a spreadsheet, a table, of here are my vehicles and these are the vehicle-specific collections. Or you can also have it filter by tag, and then it’s just like you pick whatever makes sense for your catalog. But that might be an easy way to help people sort through it.
And what I found I think in general is it’s segmentation up front, so people self-select, like these are the parts that are interesting to me, and then they end up on like, “All right, here’s a collection of the parts that fit your vehicle, plus the universal parts.” And then you can even do, depending on how big that collection ends up being, then you do like sidebar filtering, where it’s like pick… You set a price range, or a brand, or a product type.
Peter White: Yeah. That sounds awesome, actually. I think back in the early days when it was just two cars and they weren’t changing much, we didn’t need something like that, but we’re definitely getting to that point now where we need to. There’s four models, but conceptually there’s at least 12 variations within that model set, so something like that would be good
Kurt Elster: Yeah. It starts getting weird pretty quickly.
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: And that’s why when people ask, “Oh, what’s owning a Tesla like?” I say well, I think mindset wise you have to think about it like owning an exotic car. It doesn’t cost Ferrari prices, but there’s gonna be some weirdness.
Peter White: There is. Yeah. I always call it an iPad on wheels, but because the technology changes so quickly, and as I say, a 2017 Model S, even compared to a 2020, there’s so many changes. It’s crazy.
Kurt Elster: Well, and that’s why I’m like… I’m literally paying money to get the computer out of a 2020 stuck in my 2017. Because of exactly that reason.
Peter White: Yep. You’re upgrading your PC.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. And on top of it, one of the things I’m gonna get out of it is I get to play games on it so I can impress my 11-year-old. It really is… It’s a PC. The new on is Intel Atom. And has Tesla ever reached out to you? Good or bad?
Peter White: Both, actually. So, this is kind of interesting. Our largest customer collectively is Tesla, because we sell a bunch of little fob pockets and other accessories to the service centers.
Kurt Elster: Oh, really? That’s interesting.
Peter White: Yeah, so they’re our largest customer, but Tesla Corporate, bad people over in Fremont, they just won’t engage with us. We tried and we got pretty close to their marketing team when they had a marketing team, back in maybe 2014 or 2015. There was a guy there, we were kind of going back and forth. We really wanted to have some sort of licensing deal with them, because they did send us a nasty gram probably towards the beginning of 2014, because at the time we were making these fob pockets, a hobby business, we were putting a logo on the front of it and they didn’t like that. So, they sent us a takedown notice, so we had a big fire sale, two weeks, buy everything or sell everything, and then we just reinvented ourselves. We just took the Tesla logo off the stuff and just kind of carried on manufacturing the products and expanding the product set.
So, it was a good learning, and since then we’ve had no issues with Tesla. I think that we genuinely try and enhance the brand. We’re not the company just grabs a logo and sticks it on a coffee mug or a t-shirt and calls it done. You know, that’s sort of fairly abhorrent to us, because that’s adding no value at all. But yeah, we can’t get any more traction with Tesla at the moment. They’re just very difficult. And they turn their people so quickly, as well. You try to build a relationship and then all of a sudden that person’s gone, and you start over again.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. Well, I just read an article last week I think that claimed that they don’t have a PR team.
Peter White: No.
Kurt Elster: Just the PR person left quite some time ago, and as far as anyone could tell, there’s no PR team.
Peter White: No.
Kurt Elster: It’s just whatever Elon tweets.
Peter White: It’s Elon. Yeah.
Kurt Elster: That’s crazy!
Peter White: Yeah. It is.
Kurt Elster: Yeah, they do… They’re definitely atypical in many ways.
Peter White: It is. I mean, it’s the unvarnished truth, and Elon is no expert at PR, but generally speaking he’s very good at it. And you know, imagine trying to contact the CEO of BMW or Volkswagen on Twitter, or any way. It’s impossible. So-
Kurt Elster: Well, we have a colleague, Kelly Vaugh, who was on the show. Tweeted at Elon. She said, “Hey, you should have an, “I’m feeling lucky,” and an, “I’m feeling hungry,” button. And he replied, “Sure.” And then sure enough in an update there’s now an I’m feeling hungry button in the car under the navigation. That’s Kelly Vaughn’s button.
Peter White: Yeah. It’s crazy. You can-
Kurt Elster: And it’s literally because she tweeted at him.
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: But so they don’t give you any hassle over the Tesla puddle lights? Or should I have not called attention to it?
Peter White: No, they don’t. And you know, we’re obviously not the only company selling those, but again, I try and justify it that we’re leaning on the side of enhancing the brand and it’s kind of artistic license, as opposed to just slapping the logo on something and calling it done. So, no, so far we’ve sort of maintained a healthy but distant relationship, I guess.
Kurt Elster: Okay. I understand. Treading lightly, I think is the way to go. You know, and if they said, “Hey, you can’t sell these fobs.” You said, “All right, we’re gonna stop doing that.”
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: So, I think as long as you play nice in the sandbox, should be okay.
Peter White: Exactly.
Kurt Elster: But it would be nice if they had like official licensing, right?
Peter White: It would. Yeah.
Kurt Elster: Other brands do it. Other brands do well with it, like some of these… especially more performance-oriented stuff. They’re happy to develop a relationship and approve of, and then will often resell that stuff themselves at an upcharge and be like, “Look, if you get this part, this aftermarket part that we approve of installed in the dealership at no small expense, we’ll warranty it.” Oh my gosh. That’s cool. Tesla could be doing that.
Peter White: They could. And you know, back in the early days, probably 2014 or 2015, I sent a little pitch deck to Elon. I don’t suppose he ever saw it, but with all kinds of things, but basically suggesting that Tesla isn’t great at making accessories, right? Their shop is pretty lame. So-
Kurt Elster: It’s all just like weird, overpriced apparel.
Peter White: It is. Yeah. They are literally slapping the logo on a t-shirt.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. They’re doing exactly the thing you just described.
Peter White: So, you know, there’s a market there for kind of the store of stores, with curated accessories or whatever, but they don’t put focus on it. Elon’s eluded to it a couple time that they’re going to and never really do, so for that reason there’s a very healthy aftermarket community built up around Tesla.
Kurt Elster: So, going back to eCommerce. We got derailed there. On Shopify, your store did not start. You went Amazon, to BigCommerce, to Shopify. What was the thing that made you… Clearly, you were successful by the time you jumped from BigCommerce to Shopify. What was the thing that made you go, “Man, I am done with this. It is time to rip the Band-Aid off.” Because it’s effort. It’s not easy, necessarily, to do a platform… a re-platforming or platform migration.
Peter White: No. And you know, it makes me sad, actually, because we did start with BigCommerce back in 2013, and back then it was Shopify or BigCommerce for us, and I think at the time Shopify was charging a transactional fee on every sale. BigCommerce weren’t. That was it. I went BigCommerce. And you know, we grew with them. We grew into a seven-figure company with BigCommerce, but this past year, sort of 2019 into 2020, the support just became terrible. And we were having a lot of issues in particular with Apple Pay, and we see from our analytics that 60% of our visitors are on an Apple device, on a mobile Apple device. 75% are coming from Mac or iOS. So, that’s an important thing, and they just would not fix the problem, and it was clearly their issue.
So, we went back and forth, we went through several different success managers, and it just wasn’t working out for us. The very last thing I wanted to do in the middle of a pandemic is move our eCommerce store, but that’s what we decided to do in the summer of 2020, and we went live on Shopify at the end of September with your help, and we’ve really not looked back. It’s a very different world. I’m still getting used to the Shopify world. The app store is obviously, as we’ve all talked about, is a double-edged sword. But overall, the experience is better I think. BigCommerce for me, there are a few little annoying bugs in their UI that you get used to, but it would drive you insane. There’s one in particular that would catch me every single time. You set up your product, you put your description in, you load up your photos, hit submit, and it says, “Well, you didn’t put a weight in.”
All right, and then it just clears everything. It’s like-
Kurt Elster: Oh! That one is the worst.
Peter White: Good God. Every… Yes, it really, really is. And most of the time you remember to cut and paste everything before you hit submit just in case, but sometimes you don’t, and that’s just horrible, having to recreate that creative moment when you’re trying to create your product verbiage. So, it’s just lots of little things that compounded it and at the same time, Shopify getting bigger. I love the Shopify checkout experience on other web stores. You know, it’s very seamless, the Shop Pay thing, so it just seemed like the right move, and most of our competitor sites are also on Shopify, so for any number of reasons it was just time to make that move, I think.
Kurt Elster: It’s kind of interesting that you brought that up. You said, “Hey, the thing that got us annoyed was that Apple Pay didn’t work.” And do you think there’s a correlation between your customer, so Tesla owners, and them being Apple owners, where they’re like they’ve bought into that ecosystem?
Peter White: For sure. I mean, domestically, 40% of our shipments go to California. Or West Coast, I should say. Not that everyone in California has an iPhone, but you know, there’s predominantly Mac and iPhone users or Apple users that are our customers, and we see that globally. So, it’s interesting. You know, our dynamic is very clearly a tech-literate audience. Probably a couple years ago, we tried doing a click funnel thing where you try and upsell people during the sales process-
Kurt Elster: Right. Like a traditional funnel.
Peter White: Yeah. Exactly. And it’s horrible. The customers hated it. And you know, I regret doing it now. It was an interesting experiment, but it told us again that our audience isn’t that kind of audience, right? They know what they’re doing, they know what they’re looking for, they know how to use a website, they know when you’re trying to upsell them on something they don’t necessarily need, so we backed off that real quick.
Kurt Elster: So, they were offended. They felt they were being hustled.
Peter White: Yeah. Absolutely.
Kurt Elster: Interesting.
Peter White: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: Okay.
Peter White: And it was pretty disastrous. It didn’t hurt us long term, but we didn’t benefit from it in terms of sales or anything else like that, so we’ve become a lot more subtle in terms of how we do that kind of thing.
Kurt Elster: So, Tesla famously for many years has not marketed. Their marketing budget is zero. You have never seen a Tesla commercial on television or a paid ad from these people, which is wild. They rely essentially on owners evangelizing it and Elon’s Twitter. Really bizarre. Do you have to advertise?
Peter White: We do. I mean, we still rely on word of mouth as much as we can. You know, we have a lot of reviews. I think we’ve just passed 11,000 reviews, so that helps a lot, but I think that same as Amazon, right? People look at the reviews before making a purchase, a buying decision, so from our competitors, we’ve got more reviews than all of them combined, so that helps a lot. We still participate on forums. We still kind of sponsor some of the owners’ clubs and some of their events, give away little freebies and stuff like that, so it’s still word of mouth mostly, and as I say, that community kind of drives itself on the forums, and on Facebook, and Twitter, and everywhere else.
But at the same time, we still have to do stuff on Google, and Facebook, and I’ve actually got a tab open right now to add the TikTok add-in to Shopify. I haven’t clicked the button yet, but it’s probably gonna be the next thing we do.
Kurt Elster: Going backwards, looking backwards, hindsight being 20/20, when was the… Like when you started, it was you had… You’re working a full-time job. You bought this car. You were just interested in the community and you came up with this, the original product, the key fob. At what point did it occur to you, did it dawn on you, like this is bigger than I think. This could be my full-time job. This could support my family.
Peter White: So, I remember it quite clearly, actually. It was one night. I don’t know what time of year it was. It was probably towards around about Black Friday in 2013 or 2014. And I sat down on the couch with my wife, probably 10:30 at night, after we packed whatever it was, our 20 orders for the day or something crazy small like that. And we sort of looked at each other and said, “Ooh, this is taking a lot of time. Do we commit to this or do we let it go?” Because it was kind of at that pivotal point where it seemed like it could be a viable business. And we decided to go forward with it.
At the time, we were literally running the business out of the dining room. One rack of inventory. But from there on, it just kind of kept growing and growing, but we had to make a conscious decision that, “All right, we’re gonna give up our evenings, and weekends, and any other spare time just to focus on this.” And you know, it’s not easy. It’s every single day. For us, it’s a 10, 12 hour day, but because we have the passion, I think, and because we care about it, and it’s not a commodity business for us, I think that helps kind of get you through some of the rougher days.
Kurt Elster: If you had to do it over again, would you do it?
Peter White: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. I get… My day job is IT, which is fine, but it doesn’t give me a creative outlet hardly at all. So, I need that. I need that something else in my life, just to kind of keep me going. So, yeah, I’ve enjoyed it, even during the roughest times. And for us, when COVID first bit kind of in April-May timeframe, it was really difficult for us. But you know, we got through that, we’re stronger than ever now, and yeah, I would always do this again.
Kurt Elster: If you had to give someone advice who’s in this position, where they’ve started their store, they’re making 10 orders a day, what’s your advice to them?
Peter White: Well, keep going for a start. You know, we started exactly the same way. We were handwriting the envelopes as we were sending out the products, which is… Looking back, that’s crazy. If our Zebra printer breaks for a second now, we’re just scared. We’re like, “Oh, Christ. How are we gonna deal with this?”
But no, just keep going, because I think if you have a passion, and the audience around you has a passion, and you’re selling a good product, then it will grow. It will grow legs eventually. For us, 2013-2014, in fact, the first three or four years, we were doubling year on year, but it doesn’t mean anything, because that just means you’re going from 10, to 20, to 40, to 80 orders a day. So, it’s good, consistent growth, but then all of a sudden Model 3, Model Y, and then all of a sudden we’re still doubling, but it becomes more difficult as every year goes on. But I think if you have the passion and belief behind it, it’s something that anybody can do.
And I know that’s so easy to say once you’ve achieved it, but you know, I’m not the youngest chicken around now, so it’s taken me a long time to find a business that stuck. I’ve had probably in my lifetime… I don’t know. 20 decent side hustles that were earning me some sort of money. But none of them ever exploded and this one I wouldn’t say exploded, but it’s grown consistently and it’s still growing consistently.
Kurt Elster: I think your… Having seen the analytics, I think you’re understating it. Really, it’s a tremendous business that most people would be thrilled to have. If you had to go back and give yourself advice, this is my second-to-last question, my penultimate question. What advice would that be? What would you tell a… you would tell Pete in 2015?
Peter White: Oh, that’s a good question. I think have more self-belief in what you’re doing. Every day, and still now, I don’t take anything for granted and I don’t really recognize the success we have. I’m constantly focusing on the problems and the challenges rather than just taking a minute to take a breath and look back and see what we’ve achieved. We employ five or six people, which it’s my wife’s full-time job, so we’ve done good. But yeah, just take a minute, and this is advice I’ll give myself today, as well as 2015, just take a minute to look back and see what you’ve achieved versus just focusing on the problems and the negativity all the time.
Kurt Elster: That is good advice, because that’s something I have to regularly remind myself of, like all right, as I grow older and wiser, I think it really is critical, a critical part of your own mental health to be grateful, to give gratitude for your blessings, and for your own achievements. Sometimes you can be overly modest and end up just overlooking all the positive things you’ve done, and then you’re just only focusing on the negative. I think that’s very good advice.
Pete, where can our fellow Tesla owners go to check out your merchandise?
Peter White: We are at AbstractOcean.com.
Kurt Elster: Very good. Abstract Ocean. I will put it in the show notes. Anything else? Any closing thoughts?
Peter White: No, I don’t think so. Just going back to the gratitude thing really quickly. So, my wife and I frequently have this conversation, and she believes in the universe bringing stuff to you and stuff like that, so whenever I’m complaining about our order volume for the day or something like that, she says, “Well, no. It’s fine. Look at this. Look at this.” And I’m looking at my analytics and the dashboard, and I’m sort of working with facts, and she’s working with the universe, but I think most of the time it levels out. So, she’s probably right longer term and focusing on the numbers is such an intricate number, such a sort of granular level every day isn’t always the best thing. You gotta sort of take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and then you sort of see a much clearer view of where the company is and where it’s going.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. If you just drill down to I’m looking at my conversion rate for today only, less than 24 hours, down this path madness lies. You will make yourself crazy so quickly doing this.
Peter White: Yep.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. You need to look at it longer term and then also look at it like bigger picture, like, “Okay, where were we two years ago? Where do we think we’re gonna go two years from now?”
Pete, this has been fantastic, and inspiring, and insightful, and thank you for doing it. I appreciate it.
Peter White: Thank you. I appreciate you.