Aaron Marino is the founder of Pete & Pedro, a top-shelf, US-based men’s grooming brand that’s seen triple digit growth since its founding in 2015. However, he’s perhaps best known for his incredibly popular Youtube channel, alpha m., which boasts 4.7M subscribers at this writing. But more than that, Aaron is a genuinely great guy. His enthusiasm and confidence are impossible to miss. From the very outset of our conversation, I was taken into his story and moved by his experiences. I hope you'll share that feeling as I attempt to do Aaron's story justice. Pete & Pedro is a happy Judge.me customer.
The mid-to-late 2000s is an era etched in history for many famous Youtubers, including the likes of Gary Vaynerchuk and the subject of our story, Aaron Marino.
But unlike many recently minted Youtubers, Aaron started producing videos out of a sense of curiosity and fun.
“My wife gave me a video camera,” Aaron said, “I had a big mouth and video camera. This was way before anybody thought about making money off of Youtube. And I was doing my image consulting business, so I thought, ‘Let me see if I can talk about some of the things I’m helping these guys with and see if anybody’s interested.’”
It turns out they were. Aaron's channel grew quickly and, within a couple of years, his audience was large enough that brands were willing to pay him to pitch products on the show. So because much of his content focused on men's lifestyle and grooming, the audience was a natural fit for many men's products.
However, Aaron wanted to build a business, not just a Youtube channel. His first foray into product development was the alpha m. Style System, which he pitched on Shark Tank in September 2012.
"They hated the idea," Aaron said. "I went home, and I didn't really think about it all that much."
“But then it sort of hit me. I thought to myself, ‘I need a product that every guy uses. And based on all my work as an image consultant, I knew that guys always needed a great hair product.’”
The problem was that most of the product lines out there just didn't meet Aaron's quality standards.
"They'd have a good clay, but then their pomade would suck. They'd have a good forming cream, but then their clay would suck, and so on," Aaron explained. Each line of men's grooming products had its winners but would fall far short in other categories.
So, naturally, Aaron figured he would start his own men’s hair product business.
“When I started, my opening order was 96 units of five products,” said Aaron.
In the beginning, Aaron did all the product sourcing, testing, packaging, and fulfillment himself. "It was a lot of fun because I had no expectations whatsoever," Aaron said, "I didn't know what I didn't know. And so a lot of the things and the lessons that I learned were just a byproduct of trial and error. I didn't know about things like stamps.com. I was going to the post office every single day and standing in line to ship my product.”
Clearly, it started small in the beginning, but Aaron was having fun. "It was something that I loved," says Aaron. "I loved hair product, and I loved talking about it. And I think that if you're going and starting an e-commerce business, it must be something that you love.”
Aaron gave me a sound piece of advice: don’t sell shitty products. If you’re in it for anything but the love of your product, in Aaron’s book, you should quit and do something else.
It was with this sentiment that Pete & Pedro was born.
Of course, nobody knows everything in the beginning.
However, the real struggle is that, at the outset, most don't even know which things they're missing in their e-commerce knowledge base. And for Aaron, the two biggest surprises were shipping logistics and just how significant customer service would be.
“Shipping domestically is one thing,” says Aaron, “but international shipping is another issue completely. These days, customers expect international shipping, and so you're missing out on a huge customer base by not shipping internationally. But the learning curve is crazy. You have to know which countries you should ship to and which are the ones where products never get to their destination. You really have to be disciplined."
However, as with the other parts of his business, learning the right shipping methodologies is a process of trial and error. In many ways, it was the easier of the two problems to solve.
“The other thing I didn’t realize when I started the business,” says Aaron, “was just how important customer service was.”
The truth is, Aaron isn’t proud of the customer service experience Pete & Pedro offered in its early days. “I didn’t think I needed to care that much,” he said. “I knew the product was great, and that’s all that mattered to me.”
But Aaron doesn't think that way anymore, and he admitted that it was his family who got him on the right track.
"My mom works in one of my businesses, and at some point we had some customer service issues come up. I'd just be like, ‘Ah, tell ‘em to screw off!' But my mom, she was like, "You cannot do that!' After a while, I realized how right she was. I needed an attitude adjustment."
The situation reminded Aaron of something his grandfather used to say. “My grandfather was one of my heroes,” Aaron said. “I used to go and work with him on the weekends when he was getting old. He had cancer and so I was, you know, sort of his like his body. He would just sit there and tell me what to do and stuff like that. He had this saying, ‘You're either going to feed your ego or your family.’”
When Aaron said that, I got chills. It’s a powerful lesson and not one that Aaron has forgotten. That’s why he’s so committed to customer service now. He knows that even if the customer isn’t always right, it’s never right to make them feel otherwise.
“Even if they love your product,” Aaron said, “if they have an issue and you provide them shitty customer service, that totally changes their opinion of your business and brand. And they probably won’t ever buy from you again.”
It's true, and we all know it. However, sometimes we let our egos get the best of us in customer service situations. We may know we’re right about any given issue, but it’s always better to take the high ground and let the customer be right. That’s the only way to build long-lasting positive customer relationships.
Aaron agrees, "The truth is, customers aren't always right, but it doesn't matter. The businesses that are going to be successful are those that have incredible relationships with their customers and really double down on creating an amazing and pleasant experience for everybody involved."
I asked Aaron if he had a customer service story that reflected his philosophy. A recent situation came to mind immediately.
“DHL lost a whole pallet of our orders,” says Aaron. “It was like 900 orders and they still, to this day, have not found them.”
This situation left 900 customers wondering where their orders were and put Pete & Pedro in a precarious position. Should they wait and see if the products would be found or bite the bullet and ship out new products?
“Not to mention, we also sell on Amazon,” Aaron told me, “and Amazon is very particular about your late shipment rate. So there was this whole domino effect as a result of those 900 packages. But I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t know how this is going to be resolved, but the one thing I can’t do is let my customers suffer.’”
Therefore, to Aaron, the decision was easy.
He gave DHL 24 hours to find the missing product, and if they didn't, he would ship all 900 orders again. Since DHL never located the product, the team at Pete & Pedro shipped out the new orders and kept their promise to the most important people in their business, their customers.
"Customers loved it, and they understood," Aaron said, "but yes, some people were pissed off. You just have to manage it the best that you can. And the only way to do that is to do the right thing for your customers."
Barring the shipping mishap, 2018 was a fantastic year for Pete & Pedro, and Aaron credits a lot of that success to his new Marketing Director, Mike Levy. Mike came to Pete & Pedro with a gigantic pile of e-commerce marketing experience and insights which we’ll share in an upcoming article.
“Hiring Mike was one of the best decisions that I've made,” says Aaron. “He basically took his experience in e-commerce and brought it to the Pete & Pedro house. People ask me, ‘Oh, did he take work off your plate?’ No, the answer is he actually gave me more work. But the thing is, he’s doing stuff that I never did and never would do because I'm a serial entrepreneur.”
Aaron says that there's a direct correlation between Mike joining Pete & Pedro and an acceleration in growth. For example, Pete & Pedro has doubled every year since launch except for one year: last year. That's because last year Pete & Pedro more than doubled.
One of the many critical changes that have helped drive this growth was a massive reduction in discount codes.
“Discount codes are a bad habit that a lot of people get into,” says Aaron. “People think, ‘hey, I need to compete on price all the time.’ And so they try to giveaway, giveaway, giveaway, all these crazy discount codes. And I was in that habit. I was giving away 30 percent like it was nothing.”
However, Mike suggested that Aaron cut back on these discount codes and reduce the discount percentage, and it's had a transformative effect on Pete & Pedro's top-line metrics. "Now our discounts are more like 15 percent," says Aaron. "So right there, over the course of the past six months, my profit margin increased by 15 percent."
Aside from Mike running marketing, these days Aaron relies on a full team of amazing people who run the day-to-day at Pete & Pedro, including customer service, bookkeeping, and shipping and receiving.
"I've often been reactionary when hiring because I'm such a micromanager," says Aaron, "but that's something I've been letting go of and hiring Mike was a big deal for me. It was my most expensive hire ever. It was me committing to Pete & Pedro and to grow it."
Surrounding yourself with incredible people is imperative for all entrepreneurs, and in Aaron’s case, it seems to be paying dividends.
Business is booming at Pete & Pedro, but of course, it can always be better. There are still more customers to serve and more incredible products to source and sell. So that's the main focus of Aaron and his team for 2019.
However, with new products comes more business, and with more business comes the need to expand the Pete & Pedro team and possibly move into a more spacious warehouse, though Aaron says he thinks they'll be okay in their current location for some time.
“We’re growing so fast. It’s exciting, but it’s also a little bit scary,” Aaron said during a video tour of Pete & Pedro’s warehouse. “But I’m more excited… it’s a testament to busting your ass and working super hard.”
So who knows what crazy growth 2019 will bring for Pete & Pedro, and what challenges will come with that. But whatever happens, at Judge.me we're excited and proud to be working with such a fantastic team of people and such a reputable e-commerce brand.
Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for more Shopify Entrepreneur stories, including our interview with Aaron’s Marketing Director, Mike Levy.