Building an online handcrafted leather goods brand – Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather

INTERVIEW VIDEO (Length – 54:55)

PODCAST AUDIO

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Intro

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather shares his journey of starting his business as a hobby and then turning it into a full-time venture which turned out to be his best decision ever.

People & Resources Mentioned in the Episode

Book: Delivering Happiness

What You’ll Learn

Interview with Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather

00:00Introduction
01:25Inspiration for the business
04:36The leather industry
14:03Starting the business
20:46The market
24:07Advertising
28:02Selling globally
32:45Warehousing and fulfillment
38:46The team
41:00Products and inventory
46:37Mistakes made, lessons learned
48:18Rapid fire round

Rapid Fire

In this segment, the guest will answer a few questions quickly in one or two sentences.

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather

  1. Book recommendation that you would make to entrepreneurs or business professionals (Response: Delivering Happiness)
  2. An innovative product or idea and the current eCommerce, retail, or tech landscape that you feel excited about (Response: Electric toothbrush)
  3. A business or productivity tip that you would recommend (Response: Increase conversion rates through user testing)
  4. A startup or business, uh, in e-commerce, retail, or tech that you think is currently doing great things (Response: Intelligems)
  5. A peer entrepreneur or business person whom you look up to or someone who inspired you (Response: Eric Bandholz)
  6. Best business advice you ever received (Response: Always be profitable)

Interview Transcript

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Hey, there are entrepreneurs. My name is Sushant and welcome to Trep Talks. This is a show where I interview successful eCommerce entrepreneurs, business executives, and thought leaders, and ask them questions about their business story, and also dive deep into some of the strategies and tactics that they have used to start and grow their.

And today I’m really excited to welcome Ryan Popov to the show. Ryan is the founder of Popov Leather Popov Leather Mix, and sells small leather goods online. And today I’m gonna ask Ryan a few questions about his preneur journey and some of the strategies and tactics that he has used to start and grow his business.

So thank you so much for joining me today at Dropbox. Brian. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m looking, uh, looking forward to. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: By the way, did I pronounce your name and the, and the name of your business correctly? . 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah. So that’s, uh, that’s a common question. So my last name is spelled with O F F, and then the business is o v.

They’re both pronounced the same. It’s the same last name, just spelled differently. Um, and it’s, uh, The reason I did that, uh, when I first started the business, I wanted the, um, the brand name to be a name and people are familiar with pop off as a, as a name, uh, versus pop off, which is a verb. So I didn’t want it to be confusing that just, you know, my own thing there.

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So what, uh, what motivated you to get into another products business? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, I guess what motivated me. Initially was I, I had graduated art school back in 2012. No business background, no anything like that. And, uh, I got an office job on campus, uh, nine to five kind of thing. And in my evenings I was kinda looking forward.

Like a, a hobby, I guess. Uh, just something to fill my time that also sort of scratched that artistic desire that, uh, that I had lost since graduating. I had no intention of pursuing art as a career. It just didn’t appeal to me, so I was kind of, Um, lost. I guess I didn’t know really what to do, so I just, I always wanted a wallet that was minimalist.

Didn’t have Velcro branding, anything like that. Like for me, you know, I hate advertising brands. Like I wear $3 t-shirts. Um, you know, my shoes are, are. Just unbranded nothing. Like, I don’t, I just don’t like doing that. So I wanted a wallet that was similar and, uh, Leatherwork appealed to me because it was a very forgiving medium, unlike carpentry or something where you have to be good at math and measuring and all that stuff.

I just, again, being an artist, not good at that stuff. Um, and Leatherwork just appealed to me, so I nerded out, you know, I watched YouTube videos and, and just really got. And, um, this was just all sort of born out of a hobby. Um, so why leather work? It just happened to be what I was interested at the time and, you know, uh, my wife convinced me to put her on Etsy, that same wallet that I was very happily carrying around and other people were interested and there’s no stronger motivator in the world than someone opening up their wallet to give a complete stranger some cash for, for what they just made.

That encouraged me. Um, and it just kind of snowballed into what it is today. You know, with every sale we put it back into tools, better leather, um, you know, creating new products like book covers, belts, that sort of thing. And, uh, you know, every sale just kept pushing me forward and forward and, uh, yeah. So that’s essentially how the, how the business was established.

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: What was your art degree and like, were you always kinda like a, you know, handicap, uh, you know, working with your hand, kinda a. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, it’s, it’s funny cuz uh, I went to university for Ling Linguistics initially, and I was terrible at that. So then I, I went and did, uh, um, English, you know, like, uh, I got up to third year English and wasn’t any good at that

And then, so finally, I think it was in like 17th century European poetry or something, in the middle of class. I just got up and I was like, I’m gonna art school. And so that’s what I did and, uh, I excelled at it because I really enjoyed it and. Yeah. So that’s, that’s kind of the story there. And, um, my, I guess my discipline was sculpture, which kind of relates to leather work because it’s a very sculptural thing and, and in sculpture you’re always exploring new, uh, materials and mediums.

Like there was actually a lot of research involved. But, um, that’s kind what drew me to Leatherwork. I used those skills to kind of pour it into leatherwork and, and, and research and understand that as. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: And is leather in Canada? Is it like, um, is it a wide, um, well developed industry or is this, uh, mostly, you know, leather products that are brought from overseas?

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Well, there are, there are a lot of, um, leather workers in Canada. There’s a lot of, um, Companies in Canada that support Leatherwork, like, you know, they sell hardware or they, they bring in leather from the states. Um, you know, Roots is a big Canadian brand. They got their origins in, in full grain leather goods actually back in the eighties and seventies.

They had some actually phenomenal products. Um, oh, there’s a couple other off the top of my, I can’t remember. But for the most part, actually getting the raw material of leather, that’s like a very high quality and suitable for belts and wallets. You can actually get that in Canada. It’s not produced in Canada.

There are tanneries in Canada. Um, one interesting exception is, uh, a fish tannery. Uh, I forget. The province. It, it might even be in none of it, but I can’t remember the, they specialize in fishkin, which is like crazy, but you can’t really use it for a lot of stuff. You can use it for lining and, and it’s very thin.

And then the rest of the tanneries that do exist in Canada are mostly focused on game because, you know, there’s a lot of hunting, there’s a lot of wildlife. Um, and it makes sense. But that type of leather is typically only used for bags and, and clothing and, and maybe upholstery, which we don’t do. I mean, we make bags.

We use our, our letter that we bring in from the United States. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Um, I have noticed that, you know, when I go to malls and I, you know, I’m looking for an item, maybe I’m looking for a or something. Leather. Leather. And, and I’ve found, um, that it’s increasingly difficult to find leather based products. Like you can find more of, you know, what it’s called, um, you know, Leather and artificial leather or like some variations of it, Like more, not, not necessarily what is, um, you know, do you think that that’s, you know, because some of the bigger brands are moving away from leather products that’s making way for, you know, uh, brands like yourself that are more, uh, Smaller niche, but creating good leather products.

Is that, do you think that’s helpful for you and like what, what do you feel about the leather industry in general? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Um, well they, I disagree that a lot of brands are moving away. I do think a lot of the brands are sort of embracing, uh, things like, uh, like vegan products, you know, like there are, there’s uh, actual vegan weather.

There’s, uh, I’ve heard of lab grown leather as well, which is really interesting. Um, But, uh, there are still a lot of, uh, companies out there like Walmart. You go into Walmart, you go to a shoe section or a belt section. They have gen, what’s called genuine leather products. Mm-hmm. , uh, genuine is just sort of a slurry of, of different leathers.

It’s kind of put together to create a, a very uniform looking piece. But then, um, you may have experienced this. I know I have after. Like two years or maybe a year or whatever, it starts to crack and fray, you know, like wherever it bends. And that’s, that’s typical of that genuine leather. So where we fit in is we sell a higher quality leather, something that’s made and produced in the United States and shipped to us, and then we finish it and create a product.

But this type of leather is intended to get better with age, which is sort of the antithesis of most businesses and their, you know, planned obsolescence. You know, like appliance manufacturers, they have. You know, they manufacture dishwasher that’s only intended to last, you know, maybe five or 10 years, and then you have to buy a new one.

But for us, you know, you, something happens to your wallet, we’re gonna replace or repair it for free. So that’s kind of where we fit in. And our whole business model is based on, um, word of mouth. It’s based on gifting. It’s not based on, um, having a product that needs to be replaced or replenished. So that’s, I guess that’s where we’re different.

And, um, you know, Walmart’s. You know, they sell junk but you go back cuz it’s cheap. You just keep replacing it. Whereas ours, you know, you buy it once, you spend a little bit more or a lot more. And uh, then you don’t have to worry about it for the rest of your life. That’s kind of what I wanted in a business.

I didn’t wanna be known for, um, disposable products. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: How does one figure out, like what is the quality of the leather? Uh, and this is also coming from a consumer. Um, you know, I purchase a lot. Shoes, like leather shoes I would purchase, let’s say. And you know, regular brands like Aldo, I found like they used to build better leather products before, you know, maybe a few years back.

And their um, and so now I have to find like these, you know, very. Not well known or, or more, I guess high, high end brands, Italian leather or something like that, where like, if I’m really looking for quality, what can you like a little bit, You may, What is the difference between quality, high quality, understanding, You know, leather is really skin, right?

So once you take the skin, like what’s, is this really how you are curing it? That makes a. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, it’s, it, it comes down to the tannery and how they produce the leather. So there’s a lot of things. Um, you know, the leather that we use is full grain and top grain. And so what that means is like a full grain leather is like the full epidermis of the skin or the hides.

It’s like you get the hide and you can see scarring, you can see, um, marbling, fat marks, bug bites, um, you know, branding. Uh, that’s ful grain, that is skin. That’s. Corrected it might have dyes or waxes and talls put into it to make it pliable and, and soft and waxy. But it, otherwise it’s, it’s pretty much left as it is.

The next, um, I guess, category that comes after that is, uh, top. Or sorry, as corrected grain. So, um, we have a couple of leathers that we use that are, that are corrected grain for all intensive purposes. It’s still full grain, still has all the epidermis. It’s a very strong, um, leather that will develop patina over time.

So it’ll darken up and it’ll kinda show the, um, life of the user. So like you have it in your pants pockets, it’ll rub up in a certain way and you’ll see those markings. Um, but the corrected grain is essentially a sand. Of the, the imperfections. I’ll use a quote unquote cuz I like the imperfections. Um, and then there’s usually a coating or something that goes over top of it, but essentially they just want a smooth finish on there.

And, and you can see, you can still see the marbling and things like that, but for the most part it’s a very uniform piece of leather. And then after that there’s what’s called. Split grain leathers. So what they do is they, they, uh, they split the, the width of the leather in half, and then the bottom half usually goes into what’s called like bonded leathers or genuine leathers, where, you know, where I was talking about, where they mix it all together and they create this pace that dries out and they kind of.

It becomes a uniform junky piece of leather because it’s not, the epidermis is not intact, so it comes apart very easily, but it’s very cheap and it’s a, it’s an off cut. And then the top grain, um, is typically used for things like sues. Um, so, you know, when we use the term suede, um, it’s that very soft sort of, Whatever.

And then people use that for shoes. Um, it’s, yeah. So for us, we use the top two and since it’s the full hot and the 10, we can’t split it or sell it for twice as much, it tends to cost more. Um, but one way you can tell it’s a high quality leather is. Because of that patina or because of those unique marketings that are on it?

Um, that’s a, that’s a dead giveaway, that it’s a, a high quality leather. And companies like Aldo Roots, um, you know, Bienstock, um, they all used to use really high quality full green leathers and. They’ve, you know, over time gotten cheaper and cheaper. You’re even starting to see that with companies like Red Wing.

Um, for the most part, they use really good quality leathers, but they’re starting to, uh, swap out parts of, um, their soul for lesser quality or cheaper materials. Um, just because it’s more profitable, right? Um, and it’s, it’s a direction that some companies go in, they get a really good reputation, and then they start to.

Make things easier or more profitable. Um, yeah. And then another thing, you know, with high quality leathers, one, one really important thing for us is how it’s produced. So the leather is tan in the United States. There they have to adhere for, to very strict environmental regulations, which is notoriously bad in other countries.

Like, um, I know we used to get leather from, uh, Tandy, which is a very. Um, leather goods hobby company, and they get all their leather from South America and there’s no rules there. There’s lots of pollution that then affluent that comes out of those, um, tanneries. So I don’t, I don’t wanna put my name behind that kind of product.

So another, you know, another hallmark of, um, high quality leather is where it’s produced or how it’s produced, and so that’s really important to me as well. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So when you started your business, I believe you started with like one, you created one leather, uh, wallet and then you tried to sell it. I mean, that’s probably the best way of doing, you know, testing the market.

Yeah. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Have it here. This is, this isn’t my first one, but this is the, the design. So it’s a, it’s like a card holder type thing. Nice. Very nice. I just flash my credit card. . . That’s, that’s 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: pretty good. Um, yeah, those early days, So you still have job and you created this and somebody bought it and that gave you motivation to continue building it.

And, uh, can you share a little bit about those early days and how did. Uh, start making more product and, and 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: grow in the process. Yeah, So those, those early days are like the quintessential entrepreneurial story right around the dinner table. Um, you know, you get home from work, it’s five o’clock, you have dinner, and then the rest of the night is kind of spent like.

You know, making orders or, um, you know, working to perfect this, this one wallet. So when I first started it was making that cardholder wallet, and it was just, you know, weeks and weeks of learning and watching YouTube videos. You know, at work, sometimes I would be watching YouTube, you know, on my time off just to learn.

What sort of tools do you need? You know, like what’s the best type of leather? Cuz there’s just so many different leathers out there. Um, and if you get the wrong one, then it makes the job so much more difficult. Like, how thick should it be cuz you get all the different weights, um, you know, and thicknesses of leather.

And so a lot of research was involved in the early days. Um, again, lots of uh, you know, long nights at the dinner table just being fueled by this, this passion, this desire to create this perfect wallet. And then, Like I mentioned, my wife encouraged me to put it on Etsy, and then slowly those orders start, like it took a day and then someone bought a wallet.

And that was like, that was so exciting. Like that was the coolest thing ever. And then of course, you know, you get into the wonderful world of fulfillment and understanding how, you know, the post office works in Canada, it’s not very easy, it’s expensive. And uh, so there were, there were a lot of chips to the post office.

Me, um, you know, asking. You know what, like how do I ship and, and all these sorts of things. But Etsy was a really good tool, so, Like I said, I start on Nancy and it’s, um, you know, it taught us a lot about order fulfillment, customer service, how to set up listings, product photography, like how do you stand out in the sea of other wallet makers.

Um, I have a big customer service background, so I, you know, in my personal opinion, I feel like that’s how, um, we’ve really grown the business. Again, in the early days, a lot of what we’re doing now is built on word of mouth, and that’s kind of how we started. You know, you, you grab, my philosophy was to grab someone’s attention with good photography.

A good price and then wow them with a customer service. You know, cuz like anyone can make this wallet. It just, um, it’s everything else that goes with it. Um, so in the early days it was, it was a lot of, you know, 16 hour days basically at work or at the dinner table. Um, just making fulfilling wallets and answering customer emails.

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: I’m curious what, what, what, what your wife thought about the whole thing. I mean, was she like, you know, . What, what has follows this guy, you know, building this, trying to build this wallet. Yeah. She completely in it. Like what she 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: completely support. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: It’s funny, I think that can make a huge difference. Like, you know, if your partners not supportive, like that can be a big blow to, you know, whatever you’re trying to do.

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, I, this business wouldn’t be where it is today with Hunter, to be honest. It’s, uh, like you’re saying, you need that support system, uh, because there are, there are those long nights, right, and there’s orders that need to be fulfilled and she, um, She helped sew, she helped take all, everything to the post office.

Um, neither one of us were making money. Like it was just, everything was going back into the business. So we were both working. And, uh, eventually she started doing all the sewing, um, you know, the mail runs and I was doing the customer service and, and, and creating the wallet and doing the photography and marketing and, uh, yeah, she was instrumental to.

You know, getting the business up off the ground. And I remember, I remember we got to a point where I was bringing in enough revenue. And clearing enough revenue so that I could support myself. I was making the same wage as I was at the day job. And I remember the day we were at a park and I said, Hey, I know, I know we’re making this much money and I think that if I quit my job, I could really take this somewhere.

And I remember both of us were like crying in the park because it was such a scary decision. And if I didn’t have her, With that decision, we would still, I honestly think we would still be working those jobs and, and just doing this as a side hustle. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: I mean, that’s such an interesting thing that I think, you know, people who want to create businesses, um, you know, there’s this huge fear that what, what would happen if I, you know, quit my job and then go into my business full time and it did not work.

Um, I mean, I have tried in the past and in my experience, like if, as long as someone is young, like I, I guess, you know, twenties, thirties, um, and they take a risk and, you know, go the business route. And even if it doesn’t work, like I think in the process you end up learning so much and you end up understanding that, you know, you have, you know, you go through the process of trying to figure things out, which is very valuable for any company that you can go to.

I think. Um, People should never worry that if they, if you know, it didn’t work out, I mean, they can always find a another job. So, uh mm-hmm. , I think Have your perspective changed on, on that now? Like if you were to go back. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: A hundred percent. And, and it’s different, you know, if you’re not generating revenue or, or you have no sales history and you’re just jumping into anything, then yeah, that’s a dumb idea.

But like, if you’re able to prove it out and, and have consistent results, um, It is a leap of faith because you’ve become sort of the, the master of your own destiny. You’re not, you know, you’re not just showing up to work for an easy paycheck. You’re, you have to work for it and you have to hustle and, uh, that is terrifying, but also very exciting at the same time.

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So, let me talk about a little bit more about the market. So, I’m sure that the wallet market and, and including, you know, leather wallet market is quite saturated. Like there’s no shortage of, you know, if you go and type leather wallet on, on, you know, Google or Amazon, there’s like thousands of options. How do you, so you said, you know, the way, one way you stand out is.

You know, of course your post purchase experience, customer service and those kinda things. But how do you get discovered in the first place in the field of all the other products? Can you share a little bit about that? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, for sure. So when we, uh, when we first started on, on Etsy, when I put up that initial listing and started our store, there was probably, you know, this is back in 2012 and I’m just kind of trying to remember, but there was probably, you know, 50,000.

Leather wallet stores, let alone listings. So, um, you know, I think at, at, see when you first put your listings on there, they try to emphasize the newer sellers, so to, to get them to the top of the list, because once you’re established, it’s very easy to dominate those types of listings. So I think we had a light leg up.

Um, but the other, the other strategy that I employed was looking at the sea of wallets. You know, how would I stand out on a page like this? And so at the time, everyone had the white background, you know, the classic Amazon product, Nothing in the background. Um, so I said, well, What’s different? Let’s have a background, you know, a texture background that will pop and, and you know, catch the eye.

So I feel like some of that helped. Um, but that was only part of it, right? That was getting the, the foot in the door and then the customer goes to the product page. So then making sure that. It’s very descriptive. You have a lot of photography that the customer can look at, um, you know, for scale. Anything that, that someone might object about, like how thick a wall it is, how many cards can go in there.

Those are all very important for me to have in the listing and to appear as a professional as possible because, you know, anyone could put a listing up there and it’s, it’s very easy to get a get a star going on on Etsy. The other thing that I did, which is generally a big no-no, is I undercut a lot of the prices.

So at the time, I think I was selling wallets for 19 bucks. You know, we sell them now for $69. Um, these are hands sewn, um, high quality wallets, and I was selling ’em for $19. So that was a very easy way to get a lot of customers. A lot of, lot of, um, tire kicking cheap people will buy and they’re very notoriously difficult to deal with.

But I think part of that was, um, you know, once you get these people who are more, uh, demanding, you kind of build up this tough hide and, and, and get very good at dealing with customer issues and you start to wow these types of people who then become repeat customer. Or people who tell their friends. Um, and that’s is essentially how we started to build the business, was by treating these people like, you know, I, I would just bend over backwards, You don’t like it?

No problem. Here. Here’s the label. I’ll pay for it, send it back. Here’s your money back. Um, just whatever I could to make people happy was sort of my mantra. And, um, as a result, they would tell people. And, you know, that’s basically what we did. We didn’t pay for advertising. And, uh, we’re very, for. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Are you, Are you doing advertising now?

Are. Spending money at? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: No. Yeah. So after, after a while on Etsy, um, we, we, we, uh, created a Shopify store. Uh, and a lot of the people who shopped in our Etsy would then, you know, search for pop off leather and find us on our Shopify store, and then it becomes a different ballgame because Etsy has a marketplace.

Etsy has, it’s built in advertising if you wanna take advantage of it. So there’s people already there, they’re willing to buy. These are qualified people looking for products. So it’s very, uh, it’s a very good place to get your foot in, um, but not a good place to stay. So we were running our, our Shopify store in parallel with Etsy, and eventually people would just start going to our.

They would just be moving off because we would outran Etsy whenever someone typed in pop off leather and word of mouth started to grow. Uh, people in Reddit would be mentioning us in comments. I remember the first time I saw it, I was just blown away. Um, I just thought it was so cool that a complete stranger would just mention us as a, as something they loved.

And so we kind of built our reputation up that way. Um, you know, very, very passionate about getting reviews, very passionate about, um, Again, the customer service is just paramount to us. And, um, yeah, I’m kind of rambling on, but, uh, to answer your question about marketing right now, what we’re doing, um, again, word of mouth is our primary driver.

Organic SEO is our secondary, and then we have cpc. Um, I’m, I’m mostly focusing on Google. I have a little bit on, on Facebook. Facebook is mostly retargeting. Since the iOS updates, uh, we haven’t been too keen on the Facebook ecosystem. Um, but that’s, those are our primary drivers. What 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: about social? Are you on Instagram and do you, do you see a lot of acquisition from those 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: channels?

Uh, so in the early days we weren’t too good on Instagram, um, but Instagram was actually an excellent tool for brand awareness. So I think we have like something like 74,000 followers right now. And, um, what Instagram did for me and my business was, uh, forced me to become a better photographer. So, I challenged myself to do a photograph every day, um, for an entire year, and I ended up doing that.

And our, well, my ability as a photographer went up quite significantly. So that material that I created in those daily exercises is reused on our website. It’s reused in our marketing materials. And, um, we do get traffic from social platforms. Um, so I focus on Instagram because it’s a. Visual medium and that works really well for our brand.

And then I just cross post to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Business, um, with a program called a Agora Pulse that does all, all four at once. Um, and you know, like for the past couple of years it’s been, it’s been good. I wanna say a ton of people, you know, come off social and, and buy from us. I think what happens is they see us and they see us, and then maybe they’ll type our name into Google.

So we get a lot of brand searches. Brand search is like our number one. Um, when we’re looking at. Like, who’s buying? Like what are they typing as a keyword? Um, so it’s been good for a couple of things, brand awareness as well as becoming a better photographer. And then now, uh, Instagram’s sort of turning into TikTok, uh, which is getting a lot of mixed reactions.

Um, so now I’m challenging myself to be a better videographer. So that’s the next sort of echelon there and what keeps me busy on, on some. But yeah, social social’s good for brand awareness and it’s good, um, for connecting to, uh, other brands and seeing what’s out there. But by and large, uh, for us it’s been customer service and word of mouth.

Very interesting. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: And your biggest market is North America. Are you selling US Canada? Are you, I think on your website I saw you were selling internationally. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Uh, yeah. So we are 85%, uh, US customers and then 10% Canadian and the remainder is international. I think, uh, UK and Australia are biggest internal.

And 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: how do people find you? Is it really through your website or are you solid? It’s like market lists, uh, in the, uh, international market. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, it’s, it’s a lot of seo, so there’s a lot of organic. I think we’re top 10 for leather wallets. Um, uh, Google usa. Anyways, the last time I checked, uh, Handmade Wallet, that sort of thing.

So we rank quite high. Like I’m really, I, I do nerd out on, on like the SEO type stuff. So I try to optimize the website where possible. We have a very active blog as well, and. A lot of, a lot of, um, current growth is through organic, so a lot of people do find us just by type typing in those generalized keywords.

And, uh, Google Shopping has been really good. It’s turned into Performance Max, so we’ve been using that. Um, I think for the last couple of months, um, they sort of mandated that it’s replaced all the smart shopping campaigns and, uh, we’re getting a decent return on that. Um, it’s not blowing me away, but it’s, it’s good enough to get eyes in front of people who would normally otherwise see our product.

And it’s, uh, With shopping, its visual. We didn’t have a lot of luck with text ads because I, I think the qualifier for, um, a good text ad is having a product that people ha already have an expectation for prices. So unless you put it in the text ad, when people click on it, then they go, Oh my God, $99 for a wallet, I’m outta here.

Uh, whereas on Google Shopping, they see the product and they see the price, and then they can decide if they want to click. So that’s been working real really well for us. So it kind of filters out a certain, um, customer who’s willing to pay more for, for high quality. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So I’m curious, like when, on your website,

Euro,

um mm-hmm. , but is it really, um, everybody’s purchasing from your website? Or like, are you also thinking about, you know, Selling on a marketplace that is native to that country so that you know more people can find your product and buy it. I guess that that will open other issues around fulfillment, you know, how do you fulfill it?

Yeah. But, but have you thought, I mean, your product is generic and like, is universal enough that, you know, people from any country can buy it? Do you think about like expanding internationally more in that way? Um, Or do you just wanna focus 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: on North? I think that’s a fantastic question. And, um, so I have, uh, I am in the process of, uh, launching with Amazon Canada.

Um, so we have, um, we have a rep that we’re working with and so we’re looking, um, possibly at the beginning of next year. So we’re gonna do a small trial, um, and we’re gonna do the fba, So have everything in a warehouse and people just shop with Prime. Uh, it ends up actually being cheaper, uh, for shipping just because Amazon has.

You know, they’re just a behe myth and they can do that. Whereas us, you know, it’s 18 bucks to ship something across the Canada, $7 with Amazon. So it just makes sense for some of our products to live on a platform like that. And then you get the exposure to the marketplace, which is what you’re referring to.

Um, yes. I, I mean, I think it’s a, a tremendous opportunity. Uh, I, I have very limited bandwidth, so for me, Um, because I do all the marketing. Um, we’ve only recently expanded our team in the couple last couple of years to take over operations and HR and stuff like that. So my goal now is to grow. And that is exactly, um, you know, one of the, one of the ways I intend to do that.

So we’re gonna start with Canada, potentially move to the States, Mexico, uh, and see how it goes. We just, we need to see what works, um, and how easy it is. We, we had a limited engagement with. Amazon, the United States. And, um, at the time, this was like three or four years ago, uh, it, uh, it, it actually exposed us to a number of tax liabilities.

So I kind of got spooked and I pulled all the, the product out of, um, the, the warehouses there. Um, but I think we’re gonna give it another go, but this time we’ll keep it local and, uh, and I think, uh, Canadians might be more. Uh, stoked to pay less for shipping, so, uh, it might work out really well. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: So right now you’re doing all your warehousing and fulfillment in house?

Yep. And, and so shipping 80% of your market in the us do you ship internationally or do you, are you warehousing in the US for that? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: No, we ship international. So, uh, we spent a year negotiating with Canada Post and we got a very good rate. Um, it’s, it’s pretty much on par with, uh, first class, US p whatever they pay in United States.

And then the international shipping is a very good rate as well. Domestic is where we’re getting killed. Um, they can’t seem to come down on that, but, uh, they have a good relationship with the United States. So our mail passes, uh, through the borders handed off to us P and it’s. It’s a very, very competitive rate.

So we’re, we’re thankful for that. So it’s very easy to, to service our United States customers, which thankfully are the majority. But I do want to, um, you know, sell more in my country because it’s, it’s such an easy product to sell to Canadians because it’s made here and like, like that’s the number one reason when Canadians shop from us and they leave reviews and they go, You know, I love buy.

Handmade Canadian products, anything that’s made here. So we really wanna, um, capitalize on that. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: One thing I also noticed on your website, you offer returns, um, which I think is something that customers value quite a bit. Um, is it. Is it, uh, well first of all, I’m interested, you know, in this industry, like, is it, is it a very returned prone industry or, um, and then how do you, are there any challenges in returning, like you’re offering people, I guess, labels to return, but are there challenges around, you know, um, Duties and taxes that, you know, how, how do you return that to the customer and so forth, and how, how do you, or is it a very streamlined process working with the Canada Post?

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, so we, um, we engage with a company called Loop, um, and they’re, they facilitate a very, um, painless return process just for our customer as well as us. So what happens is, um, when a label’s generated for a United States customer, they’re giving, uh, s p s. Label, but on the declaration it says, Goods returned under warranty.

So as soon as that’s printed on the label and it goes over the border, we’re not charged for customs and duties because it, uh, it tells customs that this is a product that’s being returned, so therefore the dominous value has ours. Already been accounted for and it just flows freely. Um, the problem is when people use their own labels or go to the post office and do their own thing, then there is an issue with customs.

But that’s very rare, um, in our industry, in e-commerce in general, I think mostly for apparel. I think the e-commerce return rate is somewhere around 20%. Last time I checked or, or read a study on it, our return rate is two. So, um, the, the products that tend to get returned the most often with us are belts because again, that’s the closest thing we have to apparel.

You have to size it properly. We have instructions, but you know, unless you’re in a store trying it on, it can be, it can be difficult. So, um, We’re very happy with a 2% return rate. We’re very happy to pay for those labels. Um, again, that falls in line with how I want to treat customers. Like if I was shopping somewhere and I had to pay for a return label, I’d be kind of annoyed.

I I probably wouldn’t buy there again unless I really, really like their stuff. But if I got a free label and I could return it and feel, uh, comfortable knowing that I could buy something else, and if I didn’t like it, I’d just send it. Heck yeah. Like look at Amazon. Like, that’s one of the reasons I shop on Amazon is because of that reason.

So, um, I want to offer that to our customers and thankfully because our return rate is so low, it’s um, it’s not a profit loss for us to, to, to have that. Our lifetime value with all our customers is quite high. Um, so if someone comes and buys something for $70 and returns it, and we have to pay for a $20 label, I know that down the road they’re gonna spend another $70 with us.

So, Not a big deal. I, I wanna treat people as, as best as I can. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: And in terms of duties, like, do you accept at the time the customer is, uh, purchasing the item or is it like they pay after, afterwards a.

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, that’s a good question. So with the United States, because they’re our biggest, um, customer, the dominance value or the value that, um, you know, you, the threshold, like say you go over a dominous value, that’s when customers and customs and duties are applied. The United States, I believe it’s somewhere around $800, might be seven 50 or $800.

Us our typical order value is $99. So for the most part, we. Worried about it. I think the only time that there is an issue is if it’s a large wholesale or private label company. Then we provide the proper, um, you know, uh, paperwork, the U S M C A, um, declaration saying that it’s all made in Canada. Um, for the most part it’s not an issue.

Um, When it comes to international, uh, the uk, et cetera, we’re in the process of, um, registering, uh, the UK vat and the, uh, uh, I forget the, off the top of my head, but essentially it will allow us to collect those duties and to, um, remit them to the UK government so the customer doesn’t. You know, have that poor experience.

Uh, Europe as well has something like that. We haven’t dug too deep into it. Again, they make up like 1% of our sales, so it’s not high on my radar. I’m, I’m kind of, I’m more of a low hanging fruit kind of guy. So, um, a lot of those customers still expect duties, uh, even when they, you know, they shop overseas.

So, um, Canada, obviously it’s domestic, so that’s not an issue. But the US for me is, was our, was my primary focus. And since we’re under do minimus, it’s not a, it’s not a. Um, deal for me right now. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Uh, a little bit about your team. Uh, so you started out creating your own products, but I’m assuming now you’re not doing that.

Now you’re handling mostly the business of things and also your wife had started out helping out in the business. Can you share a little bit about what your team looks like and, you know, where is the, the biggest focus? Is it on. Uh, manufacturing side of things. Fulfillment, uh, customer service. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, that’s a great question.

So when we, uh, when we first started, obviously it was me and Jill making and, and running the business. Um, my day to day now is, is primarily marketing and, um, you know, putting out fires, right? Or paying bills. I, I like to tell people I pay bills for a living cause that feels like it. Um, Right now we have, Okay, so myself as co-founder and ceo, um, then we have Bob, who’s our operations director.

So he manages, um, essentially all the operations. He comes to us with a, um, quite extensive history in the automotive industry, in the manufacturing sector. So he brings to our business things like Kanban, um, Kaizen, you know, uh, Lee meant. Lean, uh, manufacturing, a lot of that thinking has been put into our product, um, and the way we manufacture and fulfill.

So prior to Bob starting, uh, our, our average turnaround time for a product was two weeks, and that was if we were caught up. So, you know, imagine going to a website like Amazon and, and it telling you, Oh, it’s gonna take two weeks. Well, yeah, I’m outta here, I’m gonna look for something else. Um, since Bob has started, uh, and then fast forward two years.

As of, I would say by the end of last year, our average turnaround time is three days now. Um, so you know, we’re looking at year over year growth of 50% and that much more orders coming through and that much faster, um, has been nothing short, but you know of, of amazing. We still hand sew our rolls, like we don’t use sewing machines.

We, we hand sew these wallets and to get a custom leather good product out the door within three days. I don’t, I don’t know anyone else doing that. Um, so that, that’s outside of the 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: products, are the products made when you get the order or do you have like, inventory of all the items? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah, so it’s, it can be both.

Um, we have inventory, so we run a COBAN system. We have, um, you know, a certain amount of units on a shelf, and when that runs dry, then we have a ticketing system. We use a, a manufacturing software called Catana, and that links with our, you know, our Shopify and our, our shipping software. And so we’re able to forecast and have inventories, uh, based on the need, um, and, and desires of our customers and, and volumes that they come in.

Um, so that’s been, that’s been amazing. Prior to that, it was get an order, um, write it on a list, put it in a bucket, and then you kind of make it. Whereas now it’s, we’re, we’re, we’re feeling shelves or not, you know? Uh, it’s very cool and it’s, uh, it’s, I never thought I’d see it. Um, and then we have, uh, Stacy, who’s our full-time product developer, so that used to be my job.

Uh, and she worked with me, um, you know, prior to that, doing the engraving and, and, and she was very good with Illustrator and that’s kind of how I did my schematics and designs. But she had a really keen eye and she understood, uh, the way we design wallets and, and the aesthetic, um, you know, the minimalist styling.

And so she took over and, um, she’s been producing. Basically all our new products for the last two or three. I don’t do that anymore. We kind of work together. Um, and she’s currently working on, uh, shoes. So next year we’re gonna be introducing a loafer, a handmade hand stone, um, leather loafer that, that rivals, uh, companies like Weiberg, um, outta Victoria.

Um, and that’s. That’s a whole other bar ballgame, but that’s something she’s working on. I wouldn’t be able to do stuff like this, like I, it would takes too much time. Like she’s been working full time this entire year just working on that. So, um, hats off to her and, uh, I’m really looking forward to.

Launching that next year. And, um, our most recent, uh, executive hire was a director of, uh, people and culture. So, you know, once I, I think I heard some, another entrepreneur say, or a few entrepreneurs say that once you get to 15 people, you really need someone in hr. . That was so true. It was like almost to the day that we hired.

And, uh, that’s been revolutionary. She’s introduced a lot of, um, learning and development plans. She works one on one with, uh, all our employees to make sure that they’re. Happy, you know, that they’re fulfilled. You know, it’s not just about getting a better paycheck, it’s about actually contributing to the team.

Or, you know, what are your goals outside of work? Like, do you, you know, what do you want to do and how can we help you? Support, support that? Uh, so she does a lot of that. She helps facilitate, um, uh, basically everything. Um, that’s not operational. That’s, that’s kind of her. And she excels at it. So that’s taken a lot of weight off my shoulder.

It’s taken a lot of weight off Bob’s shoulder. Um, I know last year Bob and I spent a lot of time, uh, dealing with a lot of HR issues that were not in our wheelhouse. Like we’re very, you know, production focused people we’re not. I hate to say it, but I’m not much of a people person and I just wasn’t good at it and I didn’t enjoy it, and it was very stressful.

So we hired Shannon and she’s been, she’s just wonderful and very thankful to have her. And then, um, you know, we have our customer service team. We have a shipping team, and then we have production. And production is, I think, uh, 16 or or 17 people in a shop. And 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: is it, uh, how do you hire those people? Is it easy to find people who are good with leather, leather products?

Like are they, do they teach this skill in universities or colleges or ? How 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: do you, how do you, If they did, if they did teach it, I probably would’ve taken that course. I don’t, I don’t think they do. Um, so for us, you know, we have standard operating procedures. We have, um, anyone can make. Like, I’m proof, like I learned it on YouTube.

I, um, for me it’s, it’s hiring culture fit. That’s where Shannon comes in and she, you know, as soon as she knows we have a need, she has connections, uh, within our community. We’re in a very small community. Um, you know, she goes to businesses and she has a little card. From pop off weather, and if she’s ever wowed by someone, like if someone’s doing a really awesome job, like at Walmart, she’ll give ’em a card.

A card and be like, Hey, you know, I noticed you’re doing a really awesome job here. If you ever think about changing careers, gimme a call. And so she does stuff like that. And we have no shortage of people. We have no shirt of J excellent people. And um, so that’s kind of what she’s been doing. Prior to that, it would just be me, you know, putting an ad on Craigslist or whatever and, you know, doing a typical Ryan fashion.

Um, and you’d get okay, you know, uh, candidates, um, you know, I’ve had to, um, Uh, I’ve had regrets doing it that way just because again, I’m not equipped to do that. Um, but when you hire for culture fit, you can train anyone, right? You can train anyone. This isn’t rocket science sewing. Wallets, right? They’re just shapes.

So, um, to answer your question, you do not need to be a leather worker. In fact, it helps if you’re not, because we don’t, we don’t work like a traditional leather worker. We have our own processes and ways of doing things. So, um, for us it’s more important that you gel with the team and, and, uh, you kind of, um, uh, agree with our core values.

We have four core values, and that’s part of the interview, interview process. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Interesting. Um, In every entrepreneur’s business, there’s always, you know, mistakes made, failures, lessons learned. Can you share maybe in your own journey, I’m sure there, there were quite a few, uh, mistakes or lessons learned? Uh, yeah.

Like the one big, uh, you know, one or two that come to mind, and what did you learn and what can other entrepreneurs learn from that? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Well, I think instead, I’m gonna give you a cheesy answer. Um, you may have heard this before, but. Um, you know, there’s, there’s a million mistakes that I make, um, or have made in the past.

There isn’t one that sort of is, you know, Bigger than the other. But what I will say is you don’t grow as an entrepreneur. You don’t grow business unless you’re making mistakes. Because mistakes are risks or they’re, you know, they’re new ways of trying things and, and when you make a mistake, you learn from it.

And that’s how you grow. And, and, and. You know, that’s how you grow your business. So maybe one example I could give is, uh, getting a one star review from a customer. You know, that’s a learning example. That’s not a mistake. That is just a way that you can, one, engage with the customer and make it right. Two, learn from whatever experience they’re having because for one customer who gives you a bad review, this is gonna be 10 or 20 others who, who don’t even bother to do that.

So, um, you know, mistakes are learning opportunities and I think that, um, to avoid. Would be, uh, at your own peril because life is the best, you know, teacher. So that’s, I’m, that’s how I’m gonna answer it. . Ok, good. Cool. . Um, 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: now I’m gonna on our rapid segment, and in the segment I’m going ask you few quick questions and you have one, you all them, maybe one word to, you know, or one sentence or so.

The first one is one book recommendation for entrepreneurs or business professionals, 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: uh, and. Delivering happiness, uh, the Zappo’s book, uh, because, uh, I fully believe that, um, all your core compet competencies should be in house and in this case, customer service, which is the one I hold the most important

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: in the current e-commerce retail or tech landscape that you feel excited 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: about. Sorry, you cut out at the beginning. Is it, Is it the. Did you say product? Yeah. Innovative 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: product or idea? Yeah. That you 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: feel about, Oh

man. I ha I’m gonna be honest, I haven’t really been excited about, um, any idea and I, I can’t give you an answer on that one. I’m sorry I didn’t, I don’t, I’m, I’m drawing a blank. I’m not anything electric vehicles ? No. Um, Oh, I’ll, Okay. My electric toothbrush, I got an electric toothbrush recently. I’m very excited about that.

I’m . Yeah, no, that’s, I honestly, I, I’m sorry. I dunno. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Um, a business or productivity tool or software that you would recommend or a productivity. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Sure. Uh, one business that I engaged with recently is called Conversion Crimes. Um, a woman named Zeta Quinn runs it, uh, it’s an excellent, uh, website dedicated to helping e-commerce businesses increase their conversion rates through user testing.

So they have, um, You know, they have a big group of of users, but what makes it extra special is that those users are, uh, intelligent, um, a very eCommerce savvy tester so that the knowledge that they give you is, is actually quite valuable and, and, and affordable. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: And then you’ve, you’ve got value outta that.

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah. Well, we did a test recently and it was. Uh, 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: a startup or business, uh, an e-commerce retailer tech that you think is currently doing great things. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Uh, yeah, again, I’m all about the conversion rate testing. So another business that we’re, uh, engaged with is called Intelli Gems. Uh, I forget the founder’s name, but essentially it’s, uh, it’s, it allows you to price test your products.

So we’re currently running a price right now in our, our. Price test on our, uh, wallet collection page. So we have a control group, which is the current price, and then we have a minus $10 version and a minus $20 version. And we’re seeing, uh, what’s profitable and, uh, what converts better. So you’re able to put in your, your cost of goods sold and it kind of gives you that information.

Um, as you run it. It’s essentially split testing, but they do it in a very succinct and intelligent way, and I’m getting a lot of value from that. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: And sometimes, you know, increasing the price also makes a, like, it can also increase conversion. We were, 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: we were very aggressive with that, so I’m just seeing if, if that’s, you know, it doesn’t hurt to, to see what happens.

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Preneur, best person whom you look up, or someone who inspires you. 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah. Um, so I’m part of a, a e-commerce, uh, pharma, a private forum, and there’s a lot of people who inspire me, Um, off the top of my head. Um, I think Eric Hols from Beard Brand. I’m not sure if you’re familiar. Uh, it’s like a beard care. Yeah.

Um, Honestly, the way that he conducts his business and even his, uh, website presence inspires me. So whenever I’m thinking of, you know, what could I be doing better, I always go to his website and I’m like, Man, this guy knows what he’s doing. And, uh, I just love, I love his YouTube presence, um, his product, like he’s nailed it.

And he is a very engaging, intelligent person to, to, um, to, to speak with. So, I’ll, I’ll use Eric as, as my example here. And you buy his 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: beer 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: products also for your, You know what? I haven’t. I’m guilty, but, uh, I might, I might. Yeah. . 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: And, uh, last question, best business advice you ever received, like you would give to a entrepreneur?

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Oh, um, I, I think the, the best advice I ever got was, Always be profitable. And it sounds kind of like, yeah, you’re, you know, you’re running a business. But for me, you know, I went to art school and I was just happy making wallets. But as you run a business and as you kind of learn how to run a business, things start to become overwhelming if you’re not making money or if you’re, if you don’t have that money to invest, to grow the business.

So, That kind of cascaded into learning about financials, you know, profit and loss, balance sheet forecasting, learning how to create a budget. So for me, that was a catalyst in my business. Um, you know, I had a business, um, mentor who said that to me. He said like, Are you profitable? And I couldn’t answer him.

So that’s, that’s sort of the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. And I think, 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: um, um, Warren Buffet, I think his two rules of business are. I think the first one is don’t lose money. I, I think that those are , you know, rules of investing. Uh, don’t lose money. And then the second rule is don’t forget rule number

So yeah, , so I thinks similar. Yeah. Thank you Ryan. Those all the questions that I had, really, really appreciate it. If wants your products, um, what is the best way they can do that, um, in US Canada else? 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Yeah. Uh, it would be on our website, uh, pop off leather.com. P pov leather do com. Perfect. 

Sushant Misra of TrepTalks: Thank you Ryan.

Thank you so much for time, for your story, for Learned, and yeah, today at 

Ryan Popoff of Popov Leather: Trep Talks. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Also, get inspired to Create a Profitable Online Business with Lizzy Klein – Building a handcrafted, sustainable jewelry brand


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