My Story of Building a Company

My Story of Building a Company
Mark Buff
Written by Mark Buff
04-12-2021
5m
How-to / tutorials

I can remember the day like it was yesterday. I placed our brand-new product onto Amazon's Marketplace and was ready to conquer the world. We had been working in the DoD contracting space for years designing antennas for various military customers, primarily for the Counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) programs that were so prevalent at the time. I had just finished my Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University a few years earlier and was ready to get moving with my new company. We were excited about venturing into the consumer space with our new paper-thin Mohu Leaf antenna as we realized that the number of people "cutting the cord" and getting rid of cable TV was on the rise.

While I hadn't used Amazon for anything more than buying books every now and then, I knew it was probably the best place to launch our new creation. I could feel the adrenaline rush as I created a business account and posted the product with a description fitting for our highly innovative design.

We were professional antenna designers with many years of experience designing high-performance products. What possibly could go wrong?

As government contracts were coming to an end, and funds were running low, I knew that there was zero option to fail with the launch. We had to continue making payroll to keep our team intact and keep the lights on. I had already put close to $50,000 on various personal credit cards to make our product semi-consumer ready and started having the statements delivered electronically so that my wife wouldn't see them and freak out. We had only one shot at making all of the pieces come together or go bust.

Posted. The Mohu Leaf Antenna for Cord Cutters was placed on the world's largest digital marketplace. I had followed all of the recommendations for success: high-quality photos, including lifestyle photos, and detailed descriptions that highlighted the unique capabilities of our product. I yelled down the hall to let everyone know – it's a done deal. Now we wait for orders to roll in.

We waited, and we waited.

Crickets. Nothing. No orders, no activity, nothing.

I was confused. I went to Amazon and started searching for our product and couldn't find it anywhere. After using various search strings, I finally found it by using the exact title as I used in the listing and realized that we were ranked number 2,000 in the Antenna Products category. I felt a lump in my throat. If I can't find it, how in the world would anyone else find it?

I started reading. Everything that I could get my hands on relating to product rank, the importance of reviews, sales velocity, Search Engine Optimization, Google Adwords, and the infamous Amazon flywheel. It quickly became apparent that there was much more to selling on Amazon than just listing a product. The only problem that I had was that time was running out. We had expenses that were mounting, we were running on fumes, my 401k (from my earlier career in Telecom) had been depleted, I had a mortgage, massive credit card debt, and a wife and three small children at home counting on me.

Fight or flight. I had given thought to both but knew that failure was not an option. There just had to be a way. While selling the first 10 or so units to family and friends brought some temporary relief, I knew it was artificial. I had to find a way to drive Amazon sales so that our product would gain rank, sales velocity, garner reviews, and eventually become a category leader.

I wished I could say that our website was stellar. I had cobbled it together the best that I could with the limited site builders available at the time. I actually thought it was pretty cool when I built it, but thinking back on it now makes me chuckle.

I had an idea: what if I drive users to our website using Google Adwords, then have a mocked-up Amazon "Buy Now" button that would drop the user onto the Amazon page for purchase. After all, what did I have to lose?

I started spending aggressively on Google Adwords to drive customers to our site. Anyone that has experience with the platform (now called Google Ads) knows that it can be an expensive venture, especially if you don't know what you're doing. Although I had the Adwords manual right by my side, there were times that my campaigns were chewing through cash. But after days and weeks of throttling ads, optimizing campaigns, and revising images and listings, orders started to trickle in.

We would place the orders that had to go out each day against the main wall in our office. Our product was housed in a small, white pizza-like box that we would stack and take to the post office at the end of each day. As time went on, the stack grew larger and larger, and to the point that we were stacking antennas all the way down our hallway. It wasn’t long before the Post Office started sending multiple trucks to our office each day for pickup. A few months after launch, we became the "Best Selling" Antenna on Amazon, selling anywhere from 300-500 units per day. The flywheel was spinning and we were off to the races.

We found ourselves working day and night, seven days a week to keep up with orders. Each of us had a particular job on the assembly line. Because we had no experience sourcing parts, we had to scavenge parts out of other products that we had to purchase to make our antennas. I was good at rolling the aluminum foil elements onto the construction paper, so that became my job.  It required using a homemade metal roller that was heated with a coffee cup warmer to melt the glue and allow the elements to stick to the construction paper before being sent to the laminator.  The final product looked like an 8.5” x 11” driver’s license with a 6 ft. cord hanging off of it.

Orders continued to climb, and soon Walmart became interested in our product. And just like that, we were in over 4,000 Walmart stores across the US. We quickly outgrew our building and moved into a much larger facility that would support multiple assembly lines, a warehouse and office space. We became Best Buy's top-selling digital antenna and began selling our products in Sam's Club, Target, and most regional retail chains. We were hiring people left and right and soon had over eighty employees cranking out over 1,000,000 antennas per year.

We dominated the cord-cutting space for 10 years. And in January of 2020, Mohu was acquired.

- - - - -

As I look back and think about all of the trials and tribulations of building a company from scratch, I am reminded of the power of grit and perseverance. Trying “really hard” is just not good enough. You need a team and a mindset who isn’t scared to make mistakes, has an inherent trust in one another, and who will chew through walls to accomplish the mission.

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