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It’s Not Always Easy: Fort’s Rocky Road with Conor Lewis, Founder of Fort

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On this show and so many others, you hear a lot about the success stories and the big companies doing new and exciting things. But the fact of the matter is that those tales of major profits and winning market share and scaling, they were almost always preceded by some really tough times and moments that have crippled many entrepreneurs who have tried to trod the same path. 

Conor Lewis is right in the middle of those extremely tough times. Conor is the founder of Fort, a company that sells magnetic pillow forts for kids. It’s a brilliant idea, and that’s not just my opinion. Tens of thousands of backers on Kickstarter agreed, and they pledged more than $2 million to see Fort make its way into their living rooms. And yet, despite the buzz and the big raise, Conor is at a crossroads. He is on the cusp of success, but dealing with massive supply chain and logistics challenges that are also impacting companies around the world. Right now is where a company like Conor’s can launch into the stratosphere… or not. So on this episode of Up Next in Commerce, I was excited to talk to Conor and hear from him exactly what he’s going through, how he’s dealing with the challenges of a young CPG company, and where he thinks Fort can get to once he pulls the company through these rough early stages. This was a raw, honest, and interesting conversation that I think so many entrepreneurs and business folks will relate to. I hope you enjoy it!

Main Takeaways:

  • Hindsight is 20/20: There are certain areas of your business that you will have a handle on right from the get-go. Other things you will have to learn along the way. One of the things many first-time founders lack is access to a network who can help them, so they fly blind and they learn hard lessons building a network along the way, understanding how and where things could have gone better, and implement those lessons as the company grows.
  • Competitor Adjacent: One hack new product companies can try is to find channels where your competitors are being talked about and try to position your own product there so that your potential customers can see you. But beware: there is actually some danger in which channels you chose – tune in to find out which.
  • Move Past the Negativity: Whether you’re winning or struggling, there will be detractors, hard times, and negativity in more ways than you imagine. You have to do what you can to move past these negative people and situations. If it’s a customer, serve them in the best way possible (through refunds or replacements of goods) and compartmentalize the problem in a healthy way so that you can manage it, but not let it drag everything you do down.

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

 

“I had seen my daughter and my wife building a pillow fort in the living room and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. But this can be done in a way cooler way, Velcro, magnets, whatever,’ and I wrote that down on the Evernote on my phone. And it hit me one day down the line, a few weeks or a month or two later, I was like, ‘Oh, I should just start my own thing. I think I can do it.’ I don’t know what happened. I just was somehow ready spiritually to take the leap and the magnetic pillow fort was the thing that I was like, ‘Okay, I think I can actually market this.’ I see the potential need for it.”

“If you’re an engineer, building a SaaS product is not unattainable. It makes sense. You know the steps to do that, because you’ve learned that. But if you’re a creative person or filmmaker or graphic designer, let’s say, or something like that, and you want to start a clothing line or a cat food brand, somebody somewhere is sewing something or somebody somewhere is formulating cat food, you can’t just produce it. And so, that was the biggest hurdle for me. I can draw stuff all day. How the hell do I actually make something?” 

“The biggest thing I learned was… it all comes down to that cost that it takes to get to the customer in store. And that was the thing that I thought, generally I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got a handle on this.’ I was obsessed with the price of it. And in hindsight, I could have been more obsessed or either sought out more professional advice. The irony is that early on, I had no network. I hadn’t raised millions of dollars. I had no access to the people that could teach me what I wanted to know… Those first steps of blind going in are so hard because you’re just flying completely blind.”

“The only magic about Kickstarter is the fact that you have to bring the magic. The days of Kickstarter being magic on its own are completely over, right? Unless you build the coolest tabletop game. You’re just not going to go viral on Kickstarter anymore. However, it’s a really great place to build products.”

“Early on, before I really had any Facebook leads, what I did was I would run a simple ad of my daughter playing with my Fort sample and I would target it to people who liked Montessori because I knew those people were in the Nugget Facebook groups and I would try to get people to share in the Facebook group because you can’t share yourself, no one will pay attention. It’s like this weird magic. If you share yourself, you get shut down. So, I got lucky. I had that one magic moment where somebody shared it in one of these really powerful Facebook groups and I got 1,500 emails that night. Because it was a new thing, no one had heard of it. And as the story goes, well fast forward a year later, Facebook groups are both one of the most powerful and one of the most detrimental things to my company now so far.”

“I’m literally in this position now where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m out of money.’ I’m in the position that happens to a lot of entrepreneurs [where] they have to make the decision. Do I keep going? Do I stop?”

“The biggest lesson that I’ve kind of learned from the e-commerce community is just, I mean, it’s so hard for me, but I just have to move past the negativity.”

“The best piece of advice is probably that you’re not a failure until you quit. It’s really stupid and simple and that’s kind of one that I’m holding. I have a few other more emotional mantras that I’m carrying. But they’re always around how obstacles lead to opportunity and there’s always lessons in what looks like failure or what looks like a challenge. And the very bottom of that is if you quit, actually it is over. My company doesn’t go under until I quit, people can call it dead. And so, I think that’s a really powerful lesson is that you just have to keep going. It’s really simple.”

Bio

Conor Lewis is the founder of Fort, the original magnetic pillow fort. Prior to founding Fort, Lewis worked in marketing and communications, and as a documentary filmmaker.


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Transcript:

Stephanie:

Welcome back to Up Next In Commerce. I’m your host, Stephanie Postles, CEO of mission.org. Today on the show, we have Conor Lewis. He is the founder of Fort. Conor, welcome to the show.

Conor:

Thank you so much, Stephanie. I’m excited to be here.

Stephanie:

I’m very excited to have you on. I think this could be one of the most exciting interviews because I have three kids. And right when I saw your company coming on the show, all my kids are under the age of four, I was like, “This is the perfect person to talk to.”

Conor:

Yes. Well, let me send you one.

Stephanie:

I need one. So that’s a great starting point. Tell me a bit about Fort. What is it and how did you come upon this idea?

Conor:

Yeah, I mean, it’s a really simple story. I lost my job in doing marketing and media last year in 2020 during the pandemic. And my wife was pregnant, I had a two-year-old daughter, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do with my life?” I had been obsessed with startups and e-commerce and everything like that forever and I came up with this idea for magnetic pillow, which seems kind of silly. But I was taking some ideas from really popular products that were on the market. Things like Modular Kid Furniture and Legos and all of that.

Conor:

And so, I came up with this magnetic pillow for an idea and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to build an e-commerce store. I’m going to take on these kids’ trends of popular products and people buying stuff for their kids to do during COVID in the house. And I saved up my money, sold my car, used my severance from losing my job, and started this company, Fort, which has gone on to both be amazing and horrible at the same time.

Stephanie:

Wow. Okay, so what were you doing when you had this aha moment? Because I think I read that you wrote it down and you kind of forgot all about it. And then, you came back to it at some point, and you’re like, “That’s my idea. I’m going to do that.”

Conor:

Yeah, I had had so many ideas throughout my life. I had been obsessed with podcasts and had friends who had really cool startups or were entrepreneurs and raised money and all the fancy stuff. And I just knew my shot, I was going to take my shot one day. I was too scared, basically. I had another corporate job lined up. I was going to go do it. COVID kind of killed that and I found myself literally stuck and I’m like, “Okay.”

Conor:

One day, I woke up. I had seen my daughter and my wife building a pillow fort in the living room. And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” But this can be done in a way cooler way, Velcro, magnets, whatever, and I wrote that down on the Evernote on my phone. And it hit me one day. Down the line, a few weeks or a month or two later, I was like, “Oh, I should just start my own thing. I think I can do it.” I don’t know what happened. I just was somehow ready spiritually to take the leap and the magnetic pillow fort was the thing that I was like, “Okay, I think I can actually market this.” I see the customer potential need for it.

Stephanie:

Yep, I love it. I mean, and one, I think getting laid off is the best thing that ever happens to people. It happened to me and like you said, I would have been too scared to make that next jump. And when I got laid off, it’s like, “Okay, now’s the time.” So, I think a lot of times it’s going to be a big blessing if you can kind of proceed in that way.

Stephanie:

So, I mean, you have this idea now. What did the next steps look like? I mean, to me, it seems like a perfect fit. You have this background in marketing. I saw you had, I think, produced and directed documentaries, you’ve been in the digital media area. It seems you have the perfect setup to be able to create a really good story around a product and launch it quickly. What were the next steps or how did you kind of play that?

Conor:

Yeah, it’s funny. It wasn’t that different. I had made a film festival documentary and I had done a ton of online media and video. Video production is kind of like Facebook and Instagram, kind of been my thing, doing for corporate people for an advertising. And so, I kind of learned, I’m not super detailed, but I learned project management there. And I also kind of learned how to be an entrepreneur because I was always entrepreneurial. But these type of projects like a documentary, which I did on a salary from someone else, so I had the safety, but I learned how to project manage a budget and large scale. A lot of, we’re talking about I think 20 terabytes of footage, right? So, it’s just like managing millions of dollars for an e-commerce company. And so, those kinds of skills translated really well.

Conor:

So, the first thing I did was, I went to art school, so I started drawing. I drew out a sketch of what I thought it could look like. I immediately started outsourcing designers to do that. And I just dove into research, which was kind of the only thing I knew how to do, which mainly consisted of podcasts and stuff online. So, I started researching because the biggest hurdle in e-commerce with a physical product… If you’re an engineer, building a SaaS product is not unattainable. It makes sense. You know the steps to do that, because you’ve learned that.

Conor:

But if you’re a creative person or filmmaker or graphic designer, let’s say, or something like that, and you want to start a clothing line or a cat food brand, somebody somewhere is sewing something or somebody somewhere is formulating cat food, you can’t just produce it. And so, that was the biggest hurdle for me. I can draw stuff all day. How the hell do I actually make something? And so, the sourcing process was that first big step after developing a brand and brand voice and all the fluff that knew how to do already, right?

Stephanie:

Okay, so what did you do? Did you go and start talking to smart people? Or did you go right to Kickstarter and then figure that out afterwards, after you had funding? What does that look like?

Conor:

Hindsight is 2020 in this instance. Of course, I wish I would have done a million things differently. But I found a course online that taught people how to source off of Alibaba.

Stephanie:

Uh-huh (affirmative). Sweet.

Conor:

I got a design from Upwork for a product. I collaborated, because I had art skills, I could draw what I wanted, and I had them render it. And I went to Alibaba and just sourced a ton of factories and found factories who made similar products, and just totally blind went in like that. And it worked well enough to get a factory that I still work with today. And that made me my first sample within, I think within six weeks. We moved really quickly.

Stephanie:

Wow. Did you go check out the factory in person? Or did you just kind of trust and hope you’re going to get a product?

Conor:

Totally blind. I mean, you can’t even go. The factory is in China. And I couldn’t even get to China. Probably two years ago, I would have been able to fly to China and vet it immediately. But, I mean, you couldn’t even, this was September 2020. No one was going to China. They were completely locked down. And so, I just basically had to hope that the few thousand dollars I was since spending to have them fly these pieces of foam over the ocean that I was actually going to get something.

Stephanie:

Yeah, fingers crossed. I mean, you’re saying that you look back and you wish you’d done a bunch of things differently. Up until this point, it sounds pretty smart. It sounds pretty spot on/ what would you have changed up until now in your journey?

Conor:

Yeah, I mean, I worked really hard then. And I had two things going in tandem, right? Kind of the daylight part of Fort was building an email list because I knew I wanted to do some sort of pre-launch campaign and shooting videos or doing marketing and graphic design stuff, and like that I kind of understood. I knew the mechanisms to turn the social wheels. But at night, it felt like what I was doing was talking to suppliers in China and networking with people and kind of troubleshooting and that was super stressful.

Conor:

And the biggest thing I learned was like, and I didn’t start out as a business person is, it all comes down to that cost that it takes to get to the customer store. And that was the thing that I thought, generally I was like, “Okay, I’ve got a handle on this. I was obsessed with the price of it. And in hindsight, I could have been more obsessed or either sought out more professional advice.

Conor:

The irony is that early on, I had no network. I hadn’t raised millions of dollars. I had no access to the people that could teach me what I wanted to know. But now I have a certain level of access. I have suppliers who are Americans now, people who know the industry, I can get introduced. I have a network with real e-commerce people. And so, those first steps of blind going in are so hard because you’re just flying completely blind.

Stephanie:

Yep. Yeah, I see you. It was fun looking, I think, on your Twitter because a lot of previous guests engaged with you and have been supporting you. We had Andrew [Farris] on and Colin McIntosh and Patrick Coddou and all these people, of course, the nicest people who’ve been on our shows are there supporting you in a big way, which I love seeing. I love just seeing that network and how everyone’s kind of coming together to help each other out in the [inaudible] world.

Conor:

Yeah, those are so, you named all super cool people.

Stephanie:

Yeah, they are. Only cool people come on our show.

Conor:

Yes. Okay, good. Now, that makes me feel better.

Stephanie:

You’re in the club. Okay, so I want to talk a bit about Kickstarter because I read that you raise 2 million in pre-sales in 10 hours and then I think you ended up raising actually 3 million. Your goal was only 25,000. So, I want to hear a bit about the magic behind getting on Kickstarter and raising that much so quickly.

Conor:

Yeah. So, the only magic about Kickstarter is the fact that you have to bring the magic. The days of Kickstarter being magic on its own are completely over, right? Unless you build the coolest tabletop game. You’re just not going to go viral on Kickstarter anymore. However, it’s a really great place to build products so I learned pretty quickly. There was this thing called Kickstarter Math and it was all about pre-launch email list. And if you could, and now we talk about this in e-commerce all the time, but what’s your conversion rate on your email list.

Conor:

So, I was like, “Okay I need to build an email list of about eight to 10,000 people in order to fulfill my Kickstarter launch immediately.” What I ended up doing and that story is a little bit longer but there’s not that much to it, is I built an 80,000-person email list in three or four months using viral sharing and things and just the excitement around the product. The product was new and no one had seen it. And I ended up building this huge email list and opened up a Kickstarter and did, like you said $2 million in 10 hours because I had so many people lined up.

Conor:

And ultimately, little did I know that was almost completely my downfall. I had consulted with this Kickstarter agency and they were like “Oh, you have to sell the product 50% off the first day. You have to.” And what I did was I brought so many customers in the first day of this Kickstarter after building this huge email list and really nurturing them and telling them the story and teaching them every safety thing about the product and everything like that. And so, they were ready to buy and they were highly qualified and they did. And I didn’t get the chance to make up the loss that I took on that first day.

Stephanie:

Oh, that’s such a bummer, okay. So then now I want to unravel it a bit to go back to even building up the email list and then we can get into why maybe discounting is never the way to go. But okay, so building up your email list, you said it was a big component was viral sharing. What were you doing to get people to not only join but also bring their friends in?

Conor:

Yeah, so it was really simple and I’ve shouted them out a ton but I use a service called KickoffLabs. They’re super popular in this space. I’ve since used them a bunch more. It’s really straightforward. We basically created a landing page via KickoffLabs and we got people to sign up like, “Hey, get notified when the Fort launches.” And after they sign up, and at the bottom there’s a little thing like, “Hey also if you enter you get a chance to win a free fort.

Conor:

And so basically it presents you with on the thank you for signing up page, a little short code that’s your own short code, and you basically use that and it’s a gamified system. So, if you share, you get more points and the person with the most points wins a free fort. So, we got, basically we’re giving away five forts to the top five shares. So, I mean we got the top winners ultimately shared over a thousand times. They get a thousand emails for us, right? Which is completely, if you think about the cost of a unit against 1500 free emails, I mean it’s absolutely, it’s worth every cent, right?

Conor:

So, you’re going to get a lot of unqualified leads in there. You’re going to get a lot of spam. We had people cheating but KickoffLabs is a really easy tool to use and it was great to kind of do this and we were also in the mall market. You could call kids or parents or something but most of your purchasers are going to be moms and it’s a really powerful consumer segment and they are used to giveaways. It’s not unheard of to see Instagram giveaways and store giveaways and things like that. So, an email is not usually where they’re spending most of their time. It would be on Instagram or Facebook or something like that, but it wasn’t unheard of. So, it really worked in our favor.

Stephanie:

Cool. Okay, and where are you tapping into Facebook groups? I think about all the mom’s groups that I’m in, in Austin here, and that seems a very big presence of people who would probably buy this. How did you think about other platforms that you kind of leaned into on top of the you using the campaigns and giveaways?

Conor:

Yeah, so Facebook group was where our initial growth came from. When I first came up with the idea for the product, I had seen the success of a product called the Nugget which is a kid’s play couch, which was so popular.

Stephanie:

Yes. My gosh, so popular. They’re like backorder for like months.

Conor:

Yes, yes. Some people are rabid for them, right? And so, and it’s a really cool company and I have not yet to meet the founders, but I guess we’re technically competitors, but I think they’re an amazing company. And I saw their success in Facebook groups and they didn’t even own their own Facebook group. And so, I was like, “Well, shoot.” All I got to do is get one person to share about the Fort and like a Nugget adjacent Facebook group or wooden toy Facebook group or Montessori Facebook group.

Conor:

And so, early on before I really had any Facebook leads, what I did was I would run a simple ad of my daughter playing with my Fort sample and I would target it to people who liked Montessori because I knew those people were in the Nugget Facebook groups and I would try to get people to share in the Facebook group because you can’t share yourself, no one will pay attention. It’s like this weird magic. If you share yourself, you get shut down.

Conor:

So, I got lucky. I had that one magic moment where somebody shared it in one of these really powerful Facebook groups and I got 1,500 emails that night. Because it was a new thing, no one had heard of it. And as the story goes, we fast forward a year later, Facebook groups are both one of the most powerful and one of the most detrimental things to my company now so far.

Stephanie:

Detrimental? Okay, why detrimental?

Conor:

A little foreshadowing.

Stephanie:

Yeah, okay. I want to hear about this now. This is very intriguing. As you’ve said, what was the other thing where you’re like “That was the best part and the worst part of my company so far.” And now I’m hearing detrimental, so let’s go into the drama of it now.

Conor:

Well, I mean, you’re catching me at the end of September in 2021. So, a year later that I got this growth in Facebook quite literally a year ago. And now, I’m delivering product to people who are suffering horrible supply chain issues. And so, I’m jumping a literal year on the story. Basically, the Facebook group also brings out the most unsatisfied people, right? Facebook, really, the way the algorithm works is it’s very straightforward. It surfaces whatever is getting the most volume, right? So whatever comment is going to be the most vitriolic or the most negative or offensive is going to surface really quickly right to the top, especially with a private group. So, you have your group’s tab and whatever comment is the most interacted is going to be the top of that group’s tab for your group.

Conor:

So, I find myself in a really challenging situation of I had to, and this is a much longer story about supply chain issues and financing and everything. But we had to go back to our backers and offer an optional charge in order to help ship their products sooner, because we quite literally were out of money. And that basically caused, I mean, what seemed like some sort of civil war almost. It was really brutal and it’s still kind of ongoing, unfortunately. So, we’re dealing with that right now, where there’s a small segment of people, I would say, less than 10%. It’s kind of the 80/20 rule, who are really unhappy, who kind of misread our intentions, or maybe they just are kind of always unhappy or always kind of angry. And so, Facebook groups has kind of been this wonderful and horrible thing at the same time,

Stephanie:

Man. Okay, so tell me a bit about the supply chain issues. I mean, I’ve heard that, throughout almost all the guests who’ve come on here, everyone’s kind of struggling with that, but I haven’t heard it maybe as intensely as, or maybe they just haven’t told me about it. But tell me, what’s going on? And what kind of things are you encountering right now?

Conor:

Yeah, we had a raise in our COGS early on. We kind of knew that was going to happen. And I was like, “Okay, I’m probably going to have to raise a little bit of money or borrow some money to cover this.” But I don’t want to bother the backers, because I want to get them their product. They’re my market validation.

Stephanie:

Were they the discounted people early on?

Conor:

Yes.

Stephanie:

Okay, so these are all the ones that you gave 50% off when you maybe shouldn’t have.

Conor:

Yeah, and I lost $150 per unit. And so, you can imagine 10,000 people, the math is simple, a lot of money. And at that time, I was losing maybe 30 to $60 a unit, so about half that. I was like, “Okay, this is not insurmountable. We can make up for that.” And June, July comes around, we’re producing tons of these, 17,000 13,000, or whatever of them. And I am looking around at the cost to bring these into the US and to move these around and ship them. And no matter how small I get them compressed and everything, I’m like, ” Oh unless I come into some serious money, I’m going to run out. I’m going to run completely dry.”

Conor:

And so, I had to make this really tough decision and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I talked about it very, very publicly because I almost can’t run from it. There’s no way to get around the fact that it’s super painful. And it’s one of those entrepreneurial lessons that I’m kind of having to take hits with. And so, I basically, it was between either shipping a segment of my product that I had sold, and not shipping anything to only shipping a fourth or a third of the product I sold and maybe closing my doors or not shipping anything and just saying, “Hey, sorry, it was a Kickstarter, I failed. I spent all your money on production and I’m just going to pay off the debt and call today”. But I really believe in this product, I really believe in the longevity of it.

Conor:

And so, what I decided to do, because we weren’t really good VC candidate, we’re not really great, it just doesn’t have all the right things. So, I went to the backers, and I said, “Hey, here’s the deal. Freight is costing me $70 a unit, it’s just pure loss that I’m taking. You bought this for $250 and it cost me $350 to get to your door, would you be willing to cover the difference? And it’s completely optional, you don’t have to do it. And if you don’t do it, basically what I’m going to do is I’ve got your information, I’m going to send you a unit, when I can cover the loss. So, what I’m going to have to do is sell the product in the meantime. The inventory that was coming in, that was going to be shipped to Kickstarter, I’m going to have to sell this as fast as possible, because I’m basically completely dry.

Stephanie:

At the full price it should be at.

Conor:

At the full price, yeah, so I can actually make some money. Well, I obviously won’t be making money for a long time, but I have to sell it and ship it because that’s pure cash flow, right? And then if you pay an extra $99, we call it our freight express charge. I will ship your product as soon as it’s available. So, we’ve already shipped those, the people who’ve been willing to pay the extra amount, which is about 20% of our backers, I’ve already shipped a lot of those units. I’ve shipped, I don’t know, at least a fifth of those. And most of them will be out in the next few weeks. But I’m literally in this position now where I’m like, “Okay, I’m out of money.” I’m in the position that happens to a lot of entrepreneurs is, they have to make the decision. Do I keep going? Do I stop?

Conor:

And I found myself last week, I had a cool media thing happened. And it was kind of like a life changing experience. And after it, I had a meltdown. I completely broke down, I started crying. And I couldn’t believe what had happened. I was looking at my company in the last 18 months, and I’m like, “What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?” There’s 500 really angry people writing FU every day in my DMs or something and people saying I’m a scammer. There are other people who are totally fine and paid $99 and are getting their product and I’m just, I don’t even know what to do anymore. So, I mean, that’s kind of where I’ve landed now and it’s a really heavy thing. And it’s even more serious when I think about this is a totally bootstrapped company. It’s all my own money. I haven’t made a dime. And I’m living off my wife’s salary. So, I’m going through this very existential founder thing right now.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I mean, but that’s why I love talking to you right now. It’s such a key moment that happens to almost any founder you talk to, who stuck with it, and has gone through the same thing. I mean, our company as well, there’s been moments of almost bankruptcy. There’s been moments we had to layoff half of our team, same kind of thing, looking at it, being like, “What to do now? Do we just shut all this down?”

Stephanie:

And what I think is so impressive with how you’re handling all this is, how you’re being so public with it, and kind of being open about the struggles that you’re going through right now. And there’s always going to be mad people. I mean, we know that with any product, but it’s very impressive watching kind of how you handle that and seeing you still trying to pull through, because it seems there will be a day where a bunch of new orders come in, that will completely eliminate that backlog of the discount that was given that maybe should have never been given. And then, smooth sailing from there. But there’s always moments like this in every company’s history. You’re just in the thick of it right now.

Conor:

Yeah. And it’s good to hear that you’ve been there and laid off your staff and dump the whole thing.

Stephanie:

Half of them, yep.

Conor:

Yeah, half. I mean, yeah, I’m the only employee. And I was fortunate enough. So, I did have the opportunity to take capital at one point, but I took on a business partner who brought in operational capital. So, I basically, instead of getting one or $2 million check, I said, “Okay, I need somebody who can help me operate this because this is, I’m going to have a bigger problem. I’m great at vision and product and branding and story, but I need to figure out how to actually make this work. And he’s really helped shepherd me through this and it’s like I’ve constantly been reminding myself, “This obstacle is the way to growth and I just so happen to be doing this really out loud.”

Conor:

And I kind of have to, partially because the customer is really vocal. They bought in on a Kickstarter. They didn’t really know what Kickstarter was. And so, I kind of brought in a little bit more passionate customer than is normal. And they were bought in because it was a Kickstarter, and the whole point is to kickstart a company. And so, I realized when all this happened, and I was terrified, and I still am terrified. I said, I think I just have to share this and totally own it because I don’t have a choice. I do kind of feel I’m failing out loud. And it’s hard when there are people who are telling you that, right?

Stephanie:

You’ll be told that even if you were successful, though, just to make it clear.

Conor:

Yeah, okay, that’s good to know. I just, it’s not fun. Entrepreneurship is fun in general. This is not enjoyable.

Conor:

And the journey of it, I hope this helps to someone listening.

Stephanie:

I bet it will. It’s not just you.

Conor:

It’s so painful. Yeah. It’s so painful and sometimes it’s so lonely.

Stephanie:

Yeah. Yep, I mean, I guarantee you, it’s going to help someone because like I said, I feel anyone who’s past that point has been there. And anyone who’s starting up is about to maybe enter that phase. And it might not be as painful as what you’re going through, but it’s probably going to be pretty close. There will always be a hump in the company history where something is very painful for I would say, at least a year, maybe more.

Stephanie:

But I mean, okay, so you have these really great supporters around you, though in the And the DDC community, what are some of the advice that they’re giving you? What are they saying or having you think about? Because I’m even thinking back to Andrew Faris is such a numbers dude. I mean, our whole conversation was around margins, and how to think about any kind of metric you could look at, we went through it all. And I think we actually had two, we had Andrew and his business partner. They are both from CTC and four by 4×400. We had them both on, they were the same. So, I’m imagining that kind of advice they would be giving you, but what’s kind of sticking out right now that may be helping you.

Conor:

Yeah, I have talked to, if you’re talking about Taylor Holliday.

Stephanie:

Taylor Holliday, yeah, that’s him.

Conor:

Taylor seems like a genius and I have talked to him personally a few times. And he’s like one of those guys, where you just like, “Oh, you’re the coolest guy I’ve ever zoomed with totally. He just exudes confidence and chill. And yeah, and I’ve gotten advice from those people, and even my own business partner who is operating a 30 or $40 million e-commerce brand. So, I’m seeing someone do it behind the scenes.

Conor:

Yeah, I mean, the big lessons that I’ve learned are, I mean, it’s so simple. I messed up the cost of goods early on, right? And so, what can I do to fix that now is the question. It’s too late. So, I can get more money from the people who have already paid, right? If they’re already sunk in, it may be possible to go in a little further. And we have raised a few $100,000 from those people. I can fix the cost of goods for the future, which is what I’ve basically already done.

Conor:

We’ve rebuilt the product. We’ve re-engineered how it’s made to make sure it’s as cost efficient and still really fun. Looking at the shipping, okay, what’s the most effective way to ship this? Running numbers backwards and forwards. Because with something like this, you could almost make it all in the US. Foam is really pretty easy in the US. It’s just you buy a big block of it, and you cut it, but at the same time, does the cost of doing foam in the US outweigh the cost of importing on a boat over the ocean.?

Conor:

And so, those kinds of things are what I dug in really hard to, and then really having good supplier partners. So, it ended up that one of my main supplier now is actually an American overseas with a lot of experience in furniture and things like this. And so, that’s one of my biggest pieces of advice is find someone who speaks English natively if you’re working overseas and with experience. You can google this and search around. It’s a small enough network that you will find a source. But finding those suppliers who take you on almost like as a mentee has been really helpful for us.

Conor:

And then the biggest lesson that I’ve kind of learned from the e-commerce community is just, I mean, it’s so hard for me, but I just have to move past the negativity. And that’s what I’ve seen, Patrick Coddou is kind of big on that. He is still totally, and he runs an amazing business. I use one of his razors, and it’s called Supply, shout out. But he owns all the social still. He may now just be hiring somebody, but he’s really good about, not letting that stuff get to him. As far as I can tell, he has dealt with incredible negativity. He has a different customer, a men’s shaving product, obviously. But I mean, there are dudes who are just as mean as some of my customers who are in Facebook. And so, that has been really helpful. It’s just you have to move past them, maybe refund to them immediately if you can. Do whatever you can to just kind of cut that off and healthfully compartmentalize that and kind of like move past it.

Stephanie:

Yeah, yep. I agree. That’s great. So, when thinking about the cost of goods sold early on, did they change after you committed to the price to the customers? Did it go up? And if so, is there a thought maybe behind locking that in? How are you protecting yourself now, so it doesn’t happen again?

Conor:

Yeah, that’s a great question. So that is really good. So, we actually kind of had to, I mean, as it goes through the Kickstart, you kind of have to pivot halfway through no matter what. When we did see how much we raised on the first day, we were like, “Okay, we got to make this up but I think we can do it.” And we realized some of the challenges with freight and things like that, so we kind of re-engineered the product. We actually added a zipper in a place to make sure that we could compress the product properly, because we knew compression was going to be really important. And so, I kind of took all the learnings along the way and sourcing different factories to ultimately build the product to where we’re at now, which is maybe the version two, I would call it. But we’re not quite to, well, version three is definitely going to be the most cost effective.

Conor:

So, with cost of goods, for us the big things to think about, if you’ve got a big product, it’s all about shipping price. And so, not only do you have to think about freight overseas if you’re doing that, which if you’re creating an almost anything at least with a fabric, you’re going to have to bring something in at some point. You’ve got to think about, “Okay, how can I make this the right size possible?” So, you almost have to work backwards from the box size. When I built the product, I started with the size of a couch cushion, right? It’s what I’m making, it’s like a fancy couch cushion. But now we’re starting with, “Okay, what’s within the bounds of what UPS and FedEx call oversized? How much is the weight? And what can we compress? What size product can we compress down to make sure we fulfill those size requirements??

Stephanie:

Got it. Okay, so it’s all around the shipping boxes and all that. And are you able to kind of have in a margin where if that increases again, you know shipping continues to get pricier. Is there a buffer to kind of help protect you going forward?

Conor:

Yeah, so I mean, the biggest buffer we have is changing supply chains up. So basically, maintaining relationships with domestic foam suppliers. So, I mean, right now, we’ve got a really solid, it’s kind of interesting. Because if everything falls apart, let’s say, magnets double in price, which has happened, by the way during our time, and I think magnets are about $60 out of our COGS. It costs $60 just for the magnets.

Stephanie:

Can we redevelop magnets? That’s the question.

Conor:

Yeah, yeah, I mean, we’re going to look at Velcro and some cheaper options, too. But we basically would, let’s say freight spiraled even further, let’s say it doubled from here. Let’s say instead of $25,000 a container or let’s say, $20,000 a container, we’re about 20 to 25 right now, depending on which coast you go to. Let’s say it’s 40,000, which is insane, right? So we’d be paying 120 per unit. We would just immediately open up a US foam supply chain. And those are kind of the things that we do plan for, right? We’re already sunk into a lot of products. We actually don’t really need any more product right now. But we’re kind of preparing ourselves for, the biggest thing is just freight. So that’s why we’re constantly trying to get the product smaller and smaller within the realm of still fun but smaller. So yeah, I mean, that’s definitely what we’re planning for is freight going even higher.

Stephanie:

Got it. Yep. It sounds like a good thing to plan for. Okay, so to get into the excitement realm, what are you most excited about over this next year? If you put all the other stuff to the side, what are you really planning for and yeah, getting excited for?

Conor:

Oh my gosh, that’s a great question. I’m so deep in being sad and frustrated.

Stephanie:

No longer Conor are you allowed.

Conor:

I know. I’m sure it’s all personal stuff. Because as an entrepreneur, and you know this and a mother and I’m a dad to young kids under three.

Stephanie:

There’s two, how many do you have?

Conor:

I have two and we’ll probably go for three here soon.

Stephanie:

Do it. It’s worth it.

Conor:

If we can, yeah. And I totally agree. I want to, but work is, it’s this funny thing. Because you feel as an entrepreneur work has to be everything. And you’re the CEO. I’m a CEO of a million-dollar company. It’s very fancy, right? Million-dollar company. And I would rather probably go mountain biking or walk in the park with my family. I think the things I’m excited for are kind of small, actually. I have those million dollars, not even million, $100 million dreams, right? I have the 100-million-dollar dream. I’m going to sell this company to Nabisco, I’m just thinking of a large brand for $100 million, right? And that’s really cool. And that would be awesome. But really, I just want to buy more bikes and hang out with my family, make pizza and watch Finding Nemo again.

Stephanie:

That’s such a good one.

Conor:

Yeah. And so, I think that’s what I’m most excited for right now, this is really hard and I’m really struggling and I’m really sad. But I know that this won’t last forever. I know that I’ll survive. And I know that my wife and kids are still going to love me. And I know that in probably 90 days, I’m going to be totally fine and we’ll still be able to go to the park.

Stephanie:

Yeah, actually even more so. I found that as you get past that hump, and you grow, and you bring on good team members, you can take a lot of things off your plate, it actually gets easier. As you grow your network, which you’re already doing, have more people to tap into, ask questions. I mean, I really think it only gets easier after that initial hurdle, which you’re already on it. So, you’re about to be there.

Conor:

I am. Yeah, I’m in the middle of it, unfortunately. Yeah.

Stephanie:

Okay, we’re going to move on to the lightning round now. The lightning round is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. This is where I ask you a question and you have a minute or less to answer. Are you ready, Conor?

Conor:

All right. What kind of soap do I use?

Stephanie:

Oh, why did I not add that to my list? That’s a good one. How many hours have you played in your pillow fort at one time?

Conor:

I’ve taken a 90-minute nap in a pillow fort with earplugs and eye shades.

Stephanie:

Okay. It’s probably a very good sound barrier.

Conor:

Actually, I was playing on top of it.

Stephanie:

Oh, okay. Okay, got it. Got it.

Conor:

It was like my own mattress, anyways, yeah.

Stephanie:

I love it.

Conor:

It works for lazy dads too.

Stephanie:

I like it. I’m going to try that out. Where do you go to learn new concepts around e-commerce or new topics to kind of stay on top of the news? Where are you watching and reading from?

Conor:

I always start with podcasts and then go to kind of any sort of just googling of founder stories, anything. I always try to find stuff with people who are doing or solving a similar problem. And I usually find that podcasts are the best, even though they’re the slowest to dig through. I’m always looking for the really deep nuggets of people trying to share really tactical stuff.

Stephanie:

Yep, I love that. That’s exactly what you were doing here. And why people will also connect with it.

Conor:

Yes.

Stephanie:

If you were to have a podcast, what would it be about?

Conor:

I’ve thought about these multiple times. And I’ve even talked to a pod friend of mine who does podcasts in e-commerce and I would call it, my original name was Dad the Consumer, DTC or Parent to Consumer because I was thinking it’s so interesting being a parent of young children and an entrepreneur. And I know so many people like yourself, now of course, we just met, that we have the same thing. And it’s so interesting balancing those two, the creative life of an entrepreneur and being a parent.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I would listen to that. I need all the tips and I can give away my few. What’s one thing that you’re secretly curious about?

Conor:

Oh man, such a good question. Really curious about? Totally stumped. I’m not secretly curious about anything. I’m outwardly curious about a lot of things. I am always wanting to learn languages. So, secretly, I’ve learned a lot of Japanese. And that’s the coolest language and the most difficult. So, I’m really into that type of thing and also constantly seeking new knowledge. So, whether it’s learning about SaaS products, and I don’t even work in SaaS, or a food product. I’m always kind of secretly looking for another company or another idea.

Stephanie:

That’s cool. And a lot of times they have a lot of ideas that can go across industries and help out a company that it’s not really there at all.

Conor:

Yeah, absolutely.

Stephanie:

Cool. All right. And the last one, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, maybe in the past six months?

Conor:

Yes, the best piece of advice is probably that you’re not a failure until you quit. It’s really stupid and simple and that’s kind of one that I’m holding. I have a few other kind of a little bit more emotional mantras that I’m carrying. But they’re always around how obstacles lead to opportunity and there’s always lessons in what looks like failure or what looks like a challenge. And the very bottom of that is if you quit, actually it is over. My company doesn’t go under until I quit, people can call it dead. And so, I think that’s a really powerful lesson is that you just have to keep going. It’s really simple.

Stephanie:

Yep. I love that. Well, Conor, thanks so much for coming on the show, being vulnerable, telling us about what’s going on. I’ve really enjoyed it. Where can people go to support you and learn more about Fort?

Conor:

Yeah, so you can find Fort at getthefort.com. G-E-T-T-H-E-F-O-R-T. You probably search magnetic pillow fort on Google, and at this point, we’ll probably come up. We’re also on social @getthefort. And if you want to find me, you can probably find me on Twitter at Conor B. Lewis with one N. C-O-N-O-R. However, lately, I haven’t been there much. So, maybe when the heat dies down, I’ll dive back into Twitter. So, but if you do want to get in touch with me just reach out through the Fort website and it gets to me because there’s no one else really for it to go to.

Stephanie:

All right. Cool. Thanks so much, Conor.

Conor:

Awesome. Thank you so much.

Episode 152