Last time we featured John and Hydrant, we covered their origin story, John's obsession with hydration, and Hydrant's go-to-market strategy. This time we dive deeper into John's advice for other Shopify merchants as they navigate the murky waters of ecommerce entrepreneurship.
Know the Basics of the Jobs For Which You're Hiring
One of John's smaller regrets was not being more knowledgeable about the food science behind Hydrant's development.
"Even though I'm not a food scientist, I would've spent more time messing around in the kitchen with the formula myself," John told me. "I would have done that before getting a professional in to help me because I made a mistake with the first professional group I hired to help with that. It was expensive and took a lot of time. I probably could have avoided some of those areas if I had become more comfortable working with the ingredients myself."
This is an opinion which John and I share. Every entrepreneur should at least understand the basics of every aspect of their business before hiring somebody to do it. The reasoning here is simple: you need to know whether or not the person you hired is doing a good job. If you don't know anything about that aspect of your business, the one for which you want to hire, then you're not ready to hire.
Don't Be a Perfectionist
This tip is a bit more generic, but the problem behind it is pervasive in the entrepreneurial community. John advises us to avoid perfection because it will paralyze us.
"Don't be a perfectionist," John said. "Make your product good. If you know your product is good, just get it in front of people and start getting feedback. If you don't do that, you go into this paralysis of making it perfect and then you put it out there and realize there's something you missed. In our case, we took a long time developing the product, and it was great when it launched, but if I could go back and do it again, would have launched it five months earlier and gathered feedback early and made tweaks as we went along."
This, of course, is easier said than done in the food and beverage industry. Often, you'll need a certain production run size for the economics to make sense. Regardless, you still have to be agile.
"If you're creating in a vacuum, it's useless," John told me. "You have to get it into the hands of real people, and not necessarily your friends' hands.
These days, John credits Judge.me as a valuable part of their feedback loop, allowing them to gather input from customers and respond in kind.
Brand Development and Product Positioning
Hydrant's branding is beautiful and clever. The bright, vibrant colors of the packaging and website evoke a sense of freshness and youth. And while the messaging has been simplified and refined, it wasn't always so. Initially, the team tried to position Hydrant as the fix to all its customers' hydration woes, but as John explained to me, this didn't work out so well.
"I invested in brand very early," John said. "We had a great visual brand from the get-go, and I think that made people think we'd been around for longer than we had, which was obviously useful. But in terms of challenges, I think it was not so much a branding challenge as a positioning challenge. When we first started, I hadn't really figured out what the positioning was. I knew what the product could do, and I knew how it applied to so many different types of people in different use cases."
"But we found that if we tried to talk about all those different use cases, it became impossible to get word of mouth advertising," John continued. "So if I said, 'Hey Ryan, you know, this product is great for after sports, great for your hangovers, and great when you have the stomach flu. Oh, and also you should drink it every morning because you can actually get hydrated faster and attack your day from minute one in a more aggressive fashion.' If I said that to you, what are you going to tell your friends? It's not a concise and simple message. So, I think that was where we struggled early on, figuring out that one consistent message was a more valuable thing to have than pretty branding."
Today, Hydrant's branding is focused and evocative: start your morning with a rush of hydration. They focus on pushing the benefits of hydrating first thing in the morning to counteract the sluggishness we all feel, even after eight good hours of sleep. After all, who doesn't want to attack their day from minute one?
Working with Influencers and Third-Party Validation
As many ecommerce entrepreneurs attempt to build a great brand, the question of working with influencers inevitably comes up. We've heard a lot about working with influencers from our Shopify entrepreneur interviews (which we'll write about soon), and John didn't disappoint when it came to advice in this area.
"We did a partnership with a meme page that had a very specific audience based in New York," John said. "The owner of the meme page posted about hydration in a way that really spoke to his audience."
"It was the first time we'd really seen an Instagram influencer come through," John continued. "I think it was because we had spent so much time building this relationship. The owner of the meme page really understood the product, what it was for, and how it would work for his audience. So he effectively became a very good pitchman for us. And that was one of our early wins on marketing."
Aside from working with online influencers, Hydrant was accepted into WeWork's WeMrkt, a marketplace where WeWork member companies can sell their products. While not an influencer in the traditional sense, there are real benefits to getting the stamp of approval from WeWork.
"There was a pitching contest to get into it," John said. "There was no single winner, but if you pitched and were one of the top X number of companies, your product could be in WeMrkt along with some pretty big brands. So we got in, and we got a lot of exposure, especially around New York City. That was another small win, and it just added to this idea that our brand was bigger than it actually was, and it helped to build trust. It's a third-party-validation thing."
Protecting Access to Your Store and Problems with Big Agencies
Perhaps the biggest mistake in Hydrant's short history came just before John and I spoke. This story speaks volumes as to why maintaining proper access control for your store is far more critical than you think.
"Long story short, we had hired an agency to do some creative work on our site," John told me, "and we gave them full access to our store. I didn't really think much about it at the time. It just happens that over time, agencies who do ads for you and who do creative work, they get access. And I hadn't been good about cleaning up."
John's original developer and friend called John out on the issue. He told John the importance of limiting access because, in his words, "if something does go wrong, you're not going to know who did it or how to fix it."
"I was like, yeah, yeah, for sure," John continued. "I knew it was a problem and figured we'd get to it eventually. That's kind of how startups work. There's a million things happening all the time, and access to my Shopify is always the last thing on my mind. At least it was until a few weeks ago."
One fine day, John and his co-founder were on a call with an important vendor. The vendor was displaying the Hydrant website via a screen share to the Hydrant team.
"And we're looking at the site," John said, and my co-founder mutes the call and says, 'Hey John, the thing he's showing us, that doesn't look like our product page. Why is it so weird?' I started to wave it off like, 'Oh, it's just like a test environment.' But then I looked at the URL and realized, 'Oh my gosh, this is actually our website, and something is very, very broken right now."
The two co-founders immediately canceled the call and jumped into emergency mode.
"We started emailing everyone with access to our store and asking who'd made changes in the past few hours," John said. "It was a very stressful time. We didn't know what had been changed. We didn't know how it had been changed. When we eventually figured out who did it, they didn't know what they'd done, and they started trying to fix the wrong thing, and it was a complete disaster. It was a very bad 24 hours for us. We had ads running. We had customers coming to the website who were having trouble placing orders. People were trying to get subscriptions, and we never had any record of it. People thought they were going to get more products, and they never came."
Beyond that, somehow, Hydrant's email triggers had been affected. Some customers weren't getting emails at all and others who'd been with Hydrant for a year were receiving welcome email sequences.
"So yeah," John said, "we learned our lesson and now have very granular controls regarding who has access to what. It took us a week to crawl out of that hole, and it was a lot of time and a lot of lost revenue along the way. We've done everything we can to ensure that will never happen again."
Nobody thinks something like this will happen to them, but that's how you become vulnerable. According to John, every Shopify entrepreneur should create a system for adding and removing access to their Shopify sites and restrict access to specific work areas. Nobody should have full control over your website except for you and perhaps your senior developer(s).
"Be as granular as you can and if someone wants access to something," John concluded, "make sure they tell you exactly why. And I'd have them make a case for giving them access to whatever that specific thing is. We upgraded our Shopify to a new level, which gave us more granularity and that has also helped to keep people out of certain areas of the business."
That concludes our conversation with John Sherwin. What's clear is that no matter how long you've been running your Shopify store, there are valuable lessons to be learned and advice to be followed. Hopefully, you won't repeat the same mistakes that Hydrant made, and you'll also learn from their successes.