The Best Email Marketing Tells a Story

Matt Ragland is a 10-year email marketer, first at ConvertKit and now at Good People Digital, the Nashville-based agency he launched in early 2023. His approach to superior email performance is storytelling.

He told me, “Brands that excel at email marketing frequently tell a story to their ideal audience.”

In our recent conversation, he and I addressed storytelling tactics, email design, automation strategies, and more. Our entire audio is embedded below. The transcript is condensed and edited for clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Who the heck are you?

Matt Ragland: I run an email marketing and course-launch agency called Good People Digital. We work with creators and ecommerce providers. We build email and launch newsletters, usually for courses and information products. I’ve been in the email game for almost 10 years.

I do a lot of things in the creator economy. I have a YouTube channel that’s just under 100,000 subscribers.

Bandholz: What is your approach to email marketing?

Ragland: I focus on a story or narrative. For ecommerce, brands that excel at email marketing frequently tell a story to their ideal audience and include their products. I would like to see more ecommerce brands bring their customers into that story in a natural way.

Creators do a good job with stories, but many are horrible at selling and promoting. And then many ecommerce merchants are good at selling, promotion, packaging, and positioning but not storytelling. Both sides have much to learn from each other.

Bandholz: Email newsletter brands such as The Hustle and Morning Brew have grown to eight-figure valuations. Walk us through that business model.

Ragland: Their revenue model focuses almost exclusively on advertising and sponsorships.

It costs very little to start an email newsletter. The Hustle and Morning Brew both went to a daily newsletter pretty early. I remember listening to the Morning Brew founders. They launched the newsletter while students at the University of Michigan. They asked people in their business classes to subscribe on paper.

It started to grow naturally from there through referrals. They had a robust referral program. Say I’m reading the Morning Brew, sign up to be a referral partner, and send it to you and 10 other people who sign up. I then get a sticker and a shirt. The Hustle did something similar.

The other thing Morning Brew and The Hustle did well was paid acquisition of newsletter subscribers. Ecommerce has been great at this for years. But more traditional newsletters didn’t understand the same way as ecommerce sellers when Facebook ads were cheap, around 2015. It felt like free money.

Bandholz: Is there any new tactic in email marketing to take inspiration from?

Ragland: A lot of people feel email marketing is old and out of vogue. But it remains among the best forms of direct marketing. In terms of new tactics, emphasize the story aspect and simplicity — making the newsletters as simple as possible and cutting back on graphics.

Try making a newsletter look more like a personal email message. A friend of mine runs a design studio called Late Checkout. He publishes a design newsletter and stripped away all of the visuals last year.

He now sends something that looks more like a letter to shareholders, which he calls “Greg’s Letter.”

Bandholz: The biggest innovation to me is campaign flows and automation. That’s how Klaviyo got traction over Mailchimp.

Ragland: Yes. Also, what Klaviyo did so well and still does is integrate SMS.

The automation piece is huge, as is the ability to have one entry point as the start for an entire flow that can upsell, down-sell, and cross-sell. We implemented it for an ecommerce client. Instead of the initial entry point of signing up for the newsletter or purchasing a product, we used a mid-life cycle automation based on interest or intent.

For example, a subscriber who clicks on a particular product or link in an email launches an automation similar to cart abandonment, with cross-sells and storytelling around that type of item.

Bandholz: Your wife is expecting your fourth child. What is your philosophy on how to be a good dad?

Ragland: I want to be a good example for my kids. I want to show them what I believe in and what being a good man is. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great examples in my life. I’m close with my dad, and he’s amazing. He’s always been a big supporter and fan of mine. My uncles have been excellent mentors, and I’ve had a lot of people in my life who have shown me that this is what it is to be a good man and a good dad.

Bandholz: Where can listeners follow you and learn more about your email services?

Ragland: Our agency site is MyGoodPeople.com —  AutomaticEvergreen.com is our email marketing service. They can follow my YouTube channel or contact me on LinkedIn or X — @mattragland.

ARTO Owner on Generational Businesses

In 1962 Arto Alajian arrived in the U.S., having fled Egypt and his shoe-manufacturing business. He became a milkman in Los Angeles, and then a ceramic tile installer, and then, in 1966, a tile maker.

Fast forward to 2024, and ARTO, the company, is a global supplier of handcrafted ceramic, porcelain, and concrete products. Armen Alajian, the founder’s son, now co-owns the business.

He and I recently spoke, addressing the challenges and rewards of generational, family-owned companies. The audio of our entire conversation is below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: What do you do?

Armen Alajian: I’m the co-owner of a company called ARTO. We make rustic and elegant handmade ceramic and concrete tiles. We manufacture in California and sell online and in showrooms in Los Angeles, nationwide, and globally.

My dad, Arto Alajian, started the business. He and my mom had a factory in Egypt. They made leather shoes there, but the government took their business. So in 1962 they came to the U.S. My dad was a milkman in the morning and went to school at night to be an airplane mechanic.

He eventually met a woman who made ceramics. She did mission restoration work. On his milk route, my dad would take her ceramic bricks to restaurants and moms in El Segundo and Santa Monica and return on weekends to install them. That’s how he started, in 1966. His first product was a clay brick.

My brother Varoujan and I started installing at a young age. My parents divorced when I was 10, and I was estranged from my father. He fired me five times, and I quit five times. We argued about the business.

Later on, we made peace, and we grew. My dad called me and said, let’s figure it out. And we did. He respected me, and I respected him. Before he passed, we were partners and friends.

My brother is an owner. I’m learning how to be a CEO. I’ve always been a partner. My brother is a full-on partner and owner, and we discuss strategy.

He has one kid. I have eight. We’re thinking about the next generation. Being in charge of your destiny is the trick, controlling your income and liberty. He wants that for his kid; I want it for my kids.

We can only offer our children an opportunity. We can’t force them. Generational businesses are nothing more than being a family.

Bandholz: Are your kids interested in the business?

Alajian: Yes. I let my kids work in the business when they were younger. I’m a salesman. When we traveled the country in a van and saw customers, we homeschooled. The kids would walk in, shake the person’s hand, and say, “Hello, my name is Adam,” or, “My name is Sarah.” So, they’ve all been around business. They love business. But I forced them all to leave and work for other people, too.

They have since returned. They all want a role in the company. I insist they come in early and leave late — the old-fashioned style of working. And then find your place. I want the kids, at the end of the day, to be owners. They don’t have to be operators.

Bandholz: I intend to give my kids ownership if the business interests them.

Alajian: A business becomes generational when operators are separated from owners. My kids who become operators will be treated like executives and compensated well if they perform. But owners have a separate mentality, whether working the business or not. That’s the way to extend it to the third or fourth generation.

But the key is to give kids the option to be operators, owners, or both. Don’t force one or the other.

My goal used to be achieving generational wealth. But no more. My wealth isn’t money. True wealth is that my kids’ kids know and love each other. Money is a tool to help you keep a family together. Wealth isn’t actual cash. It is experience and the ability to survive the next generation because liberty comes from having capital in your pocket.

Bandholz: Where can folks buy your tiles and bricks?

Alajian: In 300 stores around the U.S. or at Arto.com. Our Instagram is @artobrick. I’m on LinkedIn.

OverstockArt Founder Thrives 22 Years On

Before Shopify, YouTube, and Facebook, there was OverstockArt. David Sasson launched the company on the Yahoo Store platform in 2002 in Wichita, Kansas. It sells original, hand-painted reproductions of works by Van Gogh, Monet, and more.

Much has changed since 2002, but not Sasson’s passion and resilience. He has faced legal crises, replatforms, and competitors. Yet OverstockArt thrives.

In our recent conversation, he shared his journey, outlook, and advice for budding entrepreneurs. The entire audio is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about yourself.

David Sasson: I’m the co-founder and CEO of OverstockArt.com. We launched in 2002. We’re an ancient company by ecommerce standards. We sell art online. Our main product line is hand-painted oil reproductions of works by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and artists of that caliber. We reproduce them by hand, and customers can choose the frame. We do all the framing in our facility in Kansas and ship to consumers nationwide.

Bandholz: How does copyright come into play?

Sasson: Everything we deal with is in the public domain. Copyright law is complicated. I’m not a lawyer, but the vast majority of art in the U.S. is in the public domain if produced before 1923.

There are global limitations due to treaties among countries. For instance, there’s art in the public domain in the United States but not in Europe. We stick to art produced before 1923.

Bandholz: How does your operational system work?

Sasson: We work directly with studios overseas. We built our own supply chain software, which we use to create orders for the studios. The orders include imagery, part numbers, and the quantity to make. The studio produces the reproduction and uploads a photo. We then approve or reject it. Once we approve it, the studio will prepare the shipment to our facility here in Kansas.

Our site shows photos of the reproductions, not the originals. Once customers place an order, it will usually ship the next day for three- or four-day delivery. Selling art requires holding very broad and very shallow inventory. We have a lot of variety. We anticipate what will sell and how many to hold of each piece.

We’ve built a fairly sophisticated supply chain and demand planning tool that tells us how many to order for each painting. The model helps us hold stock profitably. It’s not simple.

With Prime, Amazon changed consumers’ delivery expectations. Now everyone wants an item in two days. The closer we get to that, the better we are, although customers understand longer waits for custom orders.

Bandholz: You’ve seen many changes since 2002.

Sasson: In 2013, we almost went out of business due to copyright claims. We had to take down a lot of questionable art, including Picassos. We paid attorneys and others — the stress was heavy.

We had a strong 2012, and our studios struggled to meet the demand. We started 2013 at the same pace and suddenly faced a copyright legal crisis. We had to remove a considerable percentage of our stock, plus many of those items were in transit from our suppliers. So I’m paying for a product that I can’t sell, and I don’t have suitable replacements.

Our sales dropped by 50%, but our costs stayed the same. We went through all our cash, and I had to put money back into the company. We couldn’t focus on increasing sales because of legal problems. For a time, I was convinced we would go under.

We finally turned a corner in 2016. By 2017 we saw real success. By the 2017 holiday season, we were suddenly flush with cash and doing what we wanted, not what we had to.

I believed in our mission, and we came through, but it wasn’t without doubts and difficulties. If you’re a new business owner, be ready because these situations can happen. It can be challenging in the moment, but it will get easier.

Bandholz: Have you considered selling OverstockArt?

Sasson: An entrepreneur’s goal should be to build a great business. If you’re having fun, why not keep doing it? If I sold the company, I would probably start another one. It’s what I do. If the perfect opportunity presents itself, I might sell, but I’m not seeking it. I want to build a great company. If founders set out to create something amazing, everything flows from there. I don’t see a reason to do something else.

Every decision in life has consequences, especially for business owners. Many folks don’t want the responsibility, and it’s common to run into problems. But if we are willing to step up, do the work, and believe in ourselves, we can push through obstacles.

My number one suggestion to newer entrepreneurs is to take time to think. I spend much of every Friday away from the office, often at a coffee shop. I’ll bring paper and write. I’ll think of a question or a topic, start writing, and read what I wrote. That’s how I come up with solutions to problems. Entrepreneurs seek action. We see something and go after it. But we can improve and develop an edge by pausing to reflect and brainstorm.

Bandholz: Where can folks connect with you?

Sasson: Our website is OverstockArt.com. I’m on LinkedIn.

Copywriter Shifts to X Ads, Scales Brands

No one can accuse ecommerce copywriter Chris Orzechowski of mimicking others. In an era of image-heavy marketing emails, he prefers plain text. Amid the Facebook-Google advertising juggernaut, he favors X.

Orzechowski is an 11-year writer and marketer, first as a freelancer and then, in 2020, at Orzy, the agency he founded. In our recent conversation, he addressed his keys to successful product copy, frustration with Meta, and migration to X Ads.

The entire audio of our discussion is embedded below. The transcript is condensed and edited for clarity.

Eric Bandholz: What do you do?

Chris Orzechowski: I’m a copywriter and an email and retention marketer. I help ecommerce brands craft better messaging to grow revenue and scale their businesses. I founded an agency called Orzy Media in 2020. Before that I was a freelancer for seven years.

I’ve worked with many direct-to-consumer companies. Over the past 11 years, I have written for Carnivore Snax, Perennial Pastures Ranch, Rich Dad Poor Dad, and Filippo Loreti.

I specialize in copy-heavy plain text and story-driven emails that differ from traditional poster-style versions. That’s my signature style. I started getting into X Ads out of necessity when I was having issues with Facebook.

We’re a small team at Orzy, a boutique. We like to go deep with our clients. Good copy will have a story and vivid descriptions, which I call dimensionalization. When folks read the product description, they don’t care about the features. They care about how it will improve their lives.

There are millions of ecommerce stores. How can a single store stand out? The marketing, the copy, the voice, and the personality will help win consumers’ mindshare. To improve copy, you have to be curious.

Part of it is immersing yourself in the industries you work in and seeing what everyone else is doing.

Bandholz: Orzy manages clients’ ad campaigns. You’re doing well with X Ads.

Orzechowski: I was initially skeptical. For a long time, people have said not to waste time on Twitter. That was pre-Elon. The platform was wonky back then, but it’s since improved.

I got started on X because I was frustrated with Meta. I got locked out of my account for over a year. I couldn’t talk to anyone at Facebook support. I opened a new account, but still had trouble. I decided to explore other avenues and zeroed in on X. I noticed some brands’ ads were getting 10 million or more impressions.

HexClad, Ridge Wallet, and other big DTC brands were running ads on X. I thought, “These are big, successful companies. The people running these ads are not idiots. There’s a reason they’re doing it.”

I started experimenting with a few campaigns. They were cheap. Some had 38-cent CPMs and 25-cent CPCs.

I started experimenting with my book, the lead magnet for my services. I was getting leads. It’s just taking a piece of content, adding some targeting parameters, and then expanding the number of impressions. Now I manage X campaigns for several clients. They work pretty well. There’s some nuance. It’s different from Meta.

Meta has many data points. They know who your people are. However, the downside is that brands get capped out with the amount they can spend. They can’t push it any higher in a profitable way. With X, you have more room to run because you can choose the targeting parameters. It’s like Google Ads or direct-mail list rental back in the day. You can create similar list universes within the targeting parameters of X.

Bandholz: On X, is it better to build on keywords, content, or demographics?

Orzechowski: It’s a bit of all three. Demographics are big. We layer on the keywords and the follower lookalikes. We choose 10 to 30 profiles, and X will generate a lookalike audience based on the profiles’ followers.

Finding good follower lookalikes, where you can get many people, is critical. You want at least a few hundred thousand, if not a million, within your targeting pool. Unless you’re a higher-end B2B SaaS company and have just 5,000 potential customers. Then you might want to target some smaller, high-end profiles.

X Ads has a feature called Optimized Targeting. It uses data from a campaign and its targeting parameters and then expands and tests it on different pockets of users.

An easy way for brands to get started on X is to roll out a successful campaign from Meta. Static ads on X tend to get more impressions. We’ve made video work, too. A good video demonstrates the product and describes it in an attention-grabbing manner.

Bandholz: Where can folks follow you?

Orzechowski: My agency is Orzy.co. “The Moat,” my book for growing brands, is on Amazon. I’m @chrisorzy on X. I’m also on LinkedIn.

Fermàt CMO on Customized Customer Journeys

Rabah Rahil first appeared on this podcast in September 2022. He was the chief marketing officer of Triple Whale, an analytics platform. We discussed customer acquisition, attribution, and more.

He’s now the CMO of Fermàt Commerce, a SaaS provider of customized customer journeys. Founded in 2021, it has raised nearly $30 million from venture capitalists.

In our recent conversation, Rahil and I discussed Fermàt’s software, target customers, and his role with the company. The entire audio is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Fermàt Commerce.

Rabah Rahil: Our software allows merchants to offer customized customer journey paths — from a click on an external ad to a product detail or category page to a conversion. A traditional sales funnel has multiple stages, such as the ad, the landing page, the product detail page, the cart, and the checkout.

We provide the tools for sellers to customize that journey with different landing pages, product detail pages, carts, and upsells. We shift the thinking from a funnel to more of a hub and spoke, with the hub being a conversion.

We create a separate site on a subdomain linked to Shopify, such as Shop.beardbrand.com. This allows us to build custom product detail pages so sellers can test offers and journeys. Sellers can send traffic to a Fermàt product page and a merchant’s own page to test conversion rates, order sizes, and other metrics.

Bandholz: So merchants can build conversion paths for their specific niche. Is that it?

Rahil: That’s exactly right.

Bandholz: What size company does Fermàt target?

Rahil: We work best for companies spending at least $50,000 monthly on Facebook and annual revenue of at least $10 million.

We find those two metrics are the biggest indicators of success. Our software is expensive. We’re driving a ton of value for companies with the scale to make it work. Our plans come with an account manager and a chief revenue engineer. We’re considering stripping that down to using use the platform via self-service.

Bandholz: What’s your sales process?

Rahil: The chief marketing officer typically signs off on it. We’re up-market right now, selling to monster companies with a lot of bureaucracy, such as head of acquisition, head of growth, media buyer, and other roles.

When a company comes on board, we’ll focus on its optimization goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days, whether it’s average order value, first-order subscription rate, products for purchase, or whatever.

Bandholz: Triple Whale is a much larger company. How did you adjust?

Rahil: At Triple Whale I managed 30, 40 people. That’s just not me. I’m not a general. I’m more of a Seal Team Six commander. I want to attack big, complex problems with a bunch of specialists. Managing a large staff destroys that. It’s not right or wrong; it’s just not my preference.

I work off of something called RACI: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. With clear lines of responsibility, you don’t have this conflict of people fighting over fiefdoms.

Bandholz: Where can people follow you?

Rahil: Our site is FermatCommerce.com. I’m on X and LinkedIn.

Amid Downturn, Ecommerce Investor Perseveres

The post-Covid ecommerce hangover has hit Roman Kahn. He launched his first direct-to-consumer brand in 2013, acquired others, and in 2021 founded Peak 21, an aggregator with equity investors. The outlook was good.

Fast forward to 2024, and many ecommerce companies are struggling. Mergers and acquisitions have cratered. Yet Kahn perseveres. His team reviews dozens of purchase candidates every month, albeit cautiously.

In our recent conversation, Kahn shared his investment criteria, current market conditions, and predictions for a recovery. The entire audio is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of what you do.

Roman Khan: I’m the founder and president of an ecommerce holding company called Peak 21. We buy, grow, and sell direct-to-consumer brands. My DTC experience began in 2013 when my wife, Jennifer, and I started Linjer. We sold leather bags but now it’s mostly jewelry. We launched it on Indiegogo.

By 2016, we were doing a couple of million in annual revenue — big enough for Jennifer and me to quit our jobs to work on it full-time. In 2017, Linjer produced $1 million in EBITDA — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. By then we had raised quite a bit of money on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and built up street cred. Folks were reaching out, asking us how we did it. We decided to diversify. We needed more brands, and Meta ads were working well.

I took that $1 million of cash, our street cred, and combined sweat equity with cash to invest in three other DTC companies. Each was doing less than $1 million in revenue annually. By 2019, we were doing $50 million in sales as a group.

When Covid hit in 2020, revenue ballooned to $100 million annually. In 2021, investors were knocking on our door, particularly Jeffrey Yan, whose family owned Forbes Media up until this year. He came to my office and said I needed to take on external capital to buy more prominent companies.

We set up a special purpose acquisition company — a blank check company — called Peak 21. Jeffrey Yan and others invested eight figures in equity. We’re now using that SPAC to buy companies. We seek brands doing $5 to $50 million in annual sales.

Bandholz: What’s an ideal acquisition candidate?

Khan: The pool is shrinking. I’ve spoken with many owners. My acquisitions team talks to 100-plus businesses every month. Only about 10% have a product-market fit that can grow with low budgets. Our main criterion now is size. We look at the fundamentals. What’s the customer acquisition cost? And the repeat buyer rate? The best scenario is 70% of first-time buyers repeat in the first quarter. We know the investment will likely work out at the rate.

Two, we look at customers’ buying habits. For instance, we own a company called Nutrition Kitchen. It’s a daily meal delivery service. Daily rather than weekly or monthly habits play a significant role.

Beyond consumables, we look at contribution margins on three levels.

First, we calculate revenue (net of taxes and coupon-driven sales) and shipping fees collected at checkout. That leaves us with “profit contribution one” — PC1.

Then, we deduct roughly 10 variable costs, such as warehouse storage, pick-and-pack, shipping fees, returns, and exchanges. That results in profit contribution two — PC2.

Lastly, we deduct marketing to determine PC3.

From PC3 we subtract operating expenses to arrive at EBITDA.

A key acquisition metric is a 50% or higher PC2 while maintaining a competitive suggested retail price.

Bandholz: A hundred candidates a month is a lot to review.

Roman: Many ecommerce companies are struggling now. Revenue and EBITDA are down. Out of our six main brands, two are struggling massively. Overall we’re okay. We’re growing with a diversified portfolio. But those two are a nightmare. We have lent over $1 million to each one in the last 24 months. So it’s been hard. Many founders are holding out until 2025 or 2026 to sell.

We buy companies in four ways. One is cash. Two is seller financing. Three is using debt, where we borrow the money against the acquired company’s value. That avenue, I should add, is very challenging now. The fourth method is an equity swap wherein we acquire a company with Peak 21 stock. Cash is scarce right now. Our willingness to pay a lot of cash upfront is low to non-existent. We’re often the only real buyers when talking to a company.

For the market to improve, two things need to happen. First, investors must get over the losses from aggregators, such as Perch, Thrasio, and others. Second, interest rates have to come down. Once that happens, liquidity will loosen up, and hopefully, the market will return, likely by Q1 2026 in my estimation.

Bandholz: How can listeners contact you?

Khan: Our site Peak21.io. They can message me on X or on LinkedIn.

Don’t Outsource Revenue, Says Hair Growth Founder

Faraz Kahn began losing his hair at age 21. Years later, when searching for startup business ideas, he focused on his own experience. The result is Fully Vital, a direct-to-consumer seller of hair loss serums and supplements that he launched in 2021.

He and I recently spoke. We addressed his launch of Fully Vital and lessons learned afterward. Relying on agencies and consultants for customer acquisition is among his biggest regrets. “Don’t outsource revenue,” he says.

The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of what you do.

Faraz Khan: I founded an ecommerce business in 2021 called Fully Vital. We make and sell hair wellness products mainly targeted at women over 40. I’ve been losing my hair since I was 21. I tried pharmaceuticals such as finasteride for a decade.

For years, I worked as a web developer and marketer in Los Angeles. In 2019 I decided to change careers and consider opportunities in ecommerce. I focused my search on longevity and being youthful. I started a podcast and interviewed leaders in the longevity field, but I wasn’t making money. So I looked at my own hair loss for ideas.

I researched extensively. Many companies sell stuff. I wanted to offer unique products to a broad audience. I went to international conventions. I flew to Thailand for a conference of hair transplant surgeons and stem cell experts. I learned enough there to realize the key to hair growth is doing many things simultaneously.

Working with physicians and scientists, I developed a serum and supplements for hair growth and density. Then, recently, we launched products for delaying gray hairs. I enlisted my friend Dr. Sandra Kaufmann, who’s written two books on longevity. She designed the protocol for delaying and reversing gray hairs. We now have two product lines.

I was new to ecommerce and didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve made a hundred mistakes, but here we are, still improving. I’ve got friends in the longevity space who are gracious enough to have me on their podcasts. Every time I do an episode, my messaging has gotten better. We discuss the science, how we developed our solution, and our target markets.

Part of my challenge is translating that authenticity into direct response marketing and Facebook ads. Our field requires education because many women, particularly, have tried many things for hair loss. We have to be authentic.

Bandholz: You’re offering subscriptions.

Khan: Yes. We’ve worked on the subscription offer to make it enticing, which involves educating the shopper. Our products take about 90 days to see results because of the hair cycle. With education, subscriptions have increased — about 40% in the last six months. Our goal is to convert 20% of all buyers into subscriptions.

We’ve focused much of our efforts on serum versus supplements because the margins are better. We need good margins to make advertising profitable.

Bandholz: What would you do differently if you could start over?

Khan: My biggest mistake was not focusing on Facebook ads, the cash cow for most direct-to-consumer businesses. I didn’t know Facebook and thought I wasn’t good enough. I’m not creative. I relied on agencies and consultants—with no results for those efforts. Our cost per acquisition exceeded $200, meaning negative margins. Then I went to Affiliate Summit West in Las Vegas and met people profitably spending $10,000 per day on Facebook ads.

That led me to change my outlook. I got into Facebook, owned it, and began editing some of our ads. I learned when to change creative, how many hooks we need, and hurdles in the conversion path. I had to get in the weeds.

I’ve learned our strengths and differences from other sellers. Our messaging has improved. Facebook’s algorithm changes required us to double down on our messaging at every consumer touch point.

We tried TikTok Shop, but nothing moves the needle like Facebook. Now I spend most of my time there. Last fall, I retained an incredible creative strategist. She encouraged me to spend more on Facebook. It’s made a big difference for me to be involved in the details.

Don’t outsource revenue. That’s my advice to entrepreneurs.

Bandholz: Where can people buy your products?

Khan: Our website is FullyVital.com. I’m @FarazKhan1000 on X and @antiaginghacks on Instagram.

BGR Media Founder on AI Upheaval

BGR is a media site covering consumer technology such as games and devices. Jonathan Geller launched the company in 2006 and sold it to Penske Media in 2010. He remains its president and general manager.

The site has long relied on organic search traffic, which it monetizes with advertising and affiliate commissions. But the tsunami of low-grade AI content has upended search rankings and thus BGR’s business.

He and I recently spoke. We addressed the future of search engines, the importance of branding, and more. The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of who you are.

Jonathan Geller: I founded a site in 2006 called Boy Genius Report. We’re a tech-focused media company covering consumer gadgets, games, and entertainment.  Penske Media acquired us in 2010, and we’re now known as BGR. I’ve been running it since then as president and general manager.

Penske is a collection of media brands and businesses that include Variety, Rolling Stone, Robb Report, South by Southwest, Golden Globes, New Year’s Eve Dick Clark Productions, Billboard, and more.

Working with Penske has been amazing. Selling was a huge decision, although for me it wasn’t an exit. Penske told me, “Sell your business, come on board, and let’s run this together — build it and grow it.”

My journey with Penske in the ever-changing media landscape has been incredible. I’m having fun.

Bandholz: Ecommerce is hard, but it seems media is getting slaughtered.

Geller: Everyone’s feeling it. It’s challenging for many digital publishers. BGR is digital — a website monetized through ads and affiliate revenue. Other businesses in the Penske portfolio have revenue alternatives such as events and subscriptions. Some still do print and licensing.

The last year or two has produced 10 times the change as the decade before. We’re in the age of AI and spammy, low-quality content, and it’s insanely challenging. No one has any idea what the future looks like. Google’s CEO has no idea what this will look like in two years, and neither do the CEOs of Microsoft and OpenAI. Everyone can guess, but no one knows with certainty. We’re in the interim, trying to make the best assumptions and forecasts.

Bandholz: AI content has swamped Google and other search engines.

Geller: It’s a crazy turbulent period. AI went from 0 to 100 overnight. But that’s starting to simmer down. I think search engines will normalize. We’ve all regarded Google as a preeminent technology company. The last 18 months have seen a tsunami of AI-generated content and a ton of black hat SEO. Folks are trying to take advantage of the algorithm, throwing up content. And it’s working. They’re ranking, getting traffic, and monetizing it.

Google launched its latest core algorithm update a few weeks ago. Its primary goal is “tackling spammy, low-quality content.” Hopefully it resets organic rankings in a good way.

But over the next couple of years, having a strong branded search presence will be essential for sites dependent on organic traffic. Customers and prospects want to shop or access your site directly, which also signals to Google that people are searching for your brand. It has authority and satisfies search intent.

Bandholz: Google is lost. Organic search rarely produces meaningful results.

Geller: Media sites see the same thing. Search results are advertising-focused. The optimist in me says that this will reset. Google is making changes. There’s a new head of search — the previous person came from the ad side. Hopefully, it means the results are more organic-centric. But, to be sure, the broad direction is pay-to-play.

Google has long been a huge traffic driver, but so have Facebook, Pinterest, Flipboard, NewsBreak, and SmartNews. You might not have heard of some of those platforms, but they offer scale and traffic. At some point, there will probably be a traffic alternative to Google. Until then, capturing visitors from organic search will be very challenging.

So from a direct-to-consumer merchant perspective, publishing content to rank organically is increasingly difficult. But authentic content that speaks to your audience remains worthwhile. It’s another reason for folks to visit your site. But, again, optimizing keywords via, say, Semrush or Ahrefs is a much harder strategy.

I see Google’s ad products growing significantly with broad keyword match, Performance Max campaigns, and getting rid of cookies. Unfortunately, we’re in a black box organically.

Bandholz: Where can folks find you?

Geller: Our site is Bgr.com. I’m @boygenius on X and @jonathangeller on LinkedIn.

Commerce Drives Culture, Says Media CEO

Phillip Jackson launched Future Commerce in 2016. The company produces articles, newsletters, and podcasts focusing on coming trends and developments in business.

He believes commerce produces a gentler society, one that fosters culture and stability. Commerce is culture, he states.

He and I recently discussed his company’s mission, large versus small brands, the maturity of ecommerce, and more. The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Who are you?

Phillip Jackson: I am the co-founder and CEO of Future Commerce, a small, bootstrapped business researching and producing media for ecommerce businesses. We work with large and small brands. We’re trying to predict the future of commerce, which was technology for the last 15 or 20 years, but now that every business is technology-enabled, we have to think about the next phase. We have four podcasts: Future Commerce, Infinite Shelf, Step by Step, and Decoded.

Ten years ago, big brands said, “We need to be online,” and “What does direct-to-consumer look like for us?” Let’s say you’re dealing with Mondelez (the food and beverage holding company) or some other conglomerate where you have individual brands with their own innovations teams, futures teams, and P&Ls within the business. They’re all resourced differently, have separate budgets, and are not talking to each other.

Some brands will find a way to achieve breakout success on the sly. You have little scrum teams or individual operating teams that don’t ask for permission—they ask for forgiveness and demonstrate success somewhere within the business. Some of the best innovations occur when they bring in entrepreneurs who understand how to get stuff done. They’re not just about theory, sitting in boardrooms, and figuring out spreadsheets. They’re good at rolling their sleeves up and getting things done.

Bandholz: You talk about an idea that commerce is culture. Can you explain?

Jackson: We’ve been at it with Future Commerce for about eight years. Over the last three or four years, ecommerce has mostly been solved. You can talk about all the tips, tricks, and tactics, but generally, it’s just buying a new piece of software.

The early exciting internet promise based on technology is gone. What has become exciting is going back to the fine arts. When I talk to folks in corporate roles, such as the head of commerce for YouTube or the head of innovation for Visa, they yearn for something deeper. Commerce is a human truth, and independent cultures have all created and found each other through trade routes. The world came together through this necessity of having something others need. Commerce is not just a value exchange — it’s a cultural connection.

We’ve learned that live-streaming isn’t the future of commerce, yet every analyst said it would be because that was happening in Asia. Maybe commerce is more cultural. Every independent culture has its own way of expressing itself, and maybe commerce is one of those. We’ve pared it down to “commerce is culture.” It is who we are at our core. It’s what we value.

A French philosopher believed that commerce makes people more amenable. When you have things you love, prize, and value, you don’t want to lose them. People who have nice things become better actors in society. As a nation becomes richer and attains wealth, it’s less prone to social upheavals. Commerce has a gentle effect on society and gives us the capitalist economy today.

Eric Bandholz: Where can people support you?

Jackson: Visit FutureCommerce.com. Find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

From Bankrupt to Thriving Entrepreneur

Study a successful entrepreneur, and you’ll likely uncover resilience. Take Aaron Marino. Twenty years ago his first business, a fitness center, failed, leaving him with half a million dollars of debt. Fast-forward to 2024, and Marino is a YouTube celebrity and thriving serial entrepreneur, mainly with men’s grooming products.

He first appeared on the podcast in 2020. We recently caught up. I asked him about failure, success, helping others, and more.

The entire audio of our conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about yourself.

Aaron Marino: I’m an entrepreneur at my core. I started posting YouTube videos in 2008 about men’s styles, grooming, dating, and relationships. I called the channel Alpha M, and it took off. I wasn’t that great at it, but I kept doing it.

Over the years, it’s allowed me to start a few businesses and verticals. I have had 20 companies. Most didn’t work out, some worked out a little, and others have done reasonably well. A few years ago, I started a channel called Alpha Mpire, where I interview other entrepreneurs.

Failure was one of the best things for me. I had a fitness center. It was an epic failure. That was my dream from age 12 — to own a fitness center. I shut it down and had half a million dollars in debt. I then drove a beer cart at a country club just to put gas in my car. That was the scariest time of my life. I didn’t have a plan B. The failure forced me to try other things less scary. I was like, okay, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I’m driving a beer cart. I’m broke. I’m bankrupt, but I’m still alive.

Bandholz: How do you emotionally get through bankruptcy as an entrepreneur?

Marino: Stress and anxiety about money and inability to pay bills robbed me of joy like nothing else. I was making a hundred dollars every three weeks driving a beer cart. I was as broke as it got. My credit cards were all shut down. Declaring bankruptcy was a huge emotional relief. It was as if I got a new lease on life. I knew I would never make the same mistakes again. It shaped me in terms of how I think about money and debt. I became more responsible. I recovered and bought a $35,000 car within a year at 100% finance.

I believe there’s a time and a place for loans and debt. If you need it, you need it. A business has two ways to raise money: incur debt or sell equity. The choice depends on how much money and help you need.

Bandholz: You have several businesses now.

Marino: The largest is a men’s skincare company called Tiege Hanley. That was a partnership with two other guys. One of the founders put up $170,000. I generated marketing material through my YouTube channel. We had another founder who also brought equity and technical skills.

I started a hair product business called Pete & Pedro. I did that through white labeling. I started that whole business for $3,000. I went to a friend who was a stylist, and he told me to call people I knew, which began the process.

I started a sunglasses company called Enemy that’s no longer around. I funded it myself. I shut it down because the product was too expensive for what I was charging, leaving no margin for marketing.

I like putting up the money whenever possible. I don’t take substantial wild risks. I don’t need $100,000 to start a business. I can validate many of these businesses for much less.

Bandholz: Tell us about Alpha Mpire, the YouTube channel.

Marino: My original channel, Alpha M., focuses on men’s grooming. I launched it back in 2008. But I love talking about business. I started Alpha Mpire in 2021 to share my experiences and those of other entrepreneurs. I found a renewed passion. With this new channel, there were no expectations. I didn’t have to worry about sponsorships. I could talk about anything. It started to grow. It’s not the biggest channel — around 70,000 subscribers.

The internet has changed the game regarding entrepreneurship and business. It’s like taking a test with the book open. If you want to start a business, the information is out there. It’s never been more affordable.

Everybody has the same access and opportunities. Some people will take action. Most won’t. I tell new entrepreneurs to find somebody who’s done it before. Copy what they did, get their advice or somebody else’s, and then do it yourself. It’s not that hard. If I can do it, anybody can.

Bandholz: Where can people follow you?

Marino: Check out my mastermind community, TheWhiteLabelMpire.com, or my Alpha Mpire YouTube channel.