3 min read

#4. How To Build A Wildly Successful Ecommerce Brand

Written by Vira and Alissa
3 min read

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A brand turned lifestyle: co-founder of RSVLTS shares how to go from making t-shirts for fun to creating a wildly successful eCommerce business with a loyal customer following.

About today’s guest 

Stephen Gebhardt, co-founder of RSVLTS, one of the most exciting and fastest growing lifestyle apparel brands in America. The brand has licensing partnerships with 21st Century Fox, NBC Universal, MLBPA, Paramount, Bob Ross, MGM and many other household names, and has been featured everywhere from ESPN to Good Morning America.

You’ll learn

  • How RSVLTS went from not having a single license and almost getting sued by Fox (yes, that Fox!) to partnering with them and now getting things ready for global distribution
  • Why email became an essential element of RSVLTS’ marketing strategy
  • How spending 3 weeks on sending highly personalized emails saved their reputation in a time of crisis

Some of the questions we ask:

  • Any advice for those trying to decide, “Should I sell on Amazon or Shopify”?
  • Since the time you started RSVLTS, how has your email marketing strategy evolved? What did you learn?
  • Email marketing or social media: which one is better for selling as an eCommerce business?


Stephen: Everything was so great. We were flying in the clouds, and then we crashed right back down to earth, all within five-minute period.

Vira: Let's talk a little bit about email.

Stephen: Ooh, okay. I bet you know a lot about this. Tell me something that I don't know. Okay, you're actually on the right track. You think a little differently, but that's a good thing.

Alissa: Welcome to Email Einstein, a podcast by Flowium. It's time to start honing your inner marketing Einstein. Tune in for the data-driven tips that'll make you a marketing genius. Here, you'll find email marketing formulas and tips straight from the brilliant mad scientists at Flowium. It's time for your emails to start earning more money. It's time to unleash your Einstein.

Alissa: Hey there, everyone. Alissa and Vira here. We are two email marketers at an email marketing agency called Flowium. We are so passionate about email marketing, and because we love what we do, we want to share our insights with you. Flowium is one of the fastest-growing email marketing agencies in the world. We specialize in providing a premium, full-service, eCommerce email marketing experience for all of our clients. Our service is tailored specifically for your business and is designed to help increase your online retail revenue by 20 to 50%. We deliver the right message to the right person at the right moment, and that's what we're all about here at Flowium. We have a special guest with us today, and we're so, so, so excited to share with you. He has so much to share, and his story is really the most compelling we've heard in the eCommerce space thus far. So we're just going to go ahead and jump right into it.

Vira: Hey, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flowium podcast. Thanks for hanging out with us today, and today on the show we'll be talking to Steve Gebhart from RSVLT Apparel. Hi, Stephen.

Stephen: How are you doing?

Vira: Good, good. We're so excited to have you on the podcast today. For those of you guys who don't know, Steve is one of the masterminds behind the RSVLT Apparel. Steve, your story's amazing, and I can't wait to hear it today.

Stephen: Absolutely. I'm excited to share it.

Vira: It's one of those stories that I want to hear over and over and over again, and I'm sure someday they will make a movie about RSVLT and about you. But before we go there-

Stephen: That will be starring Jason Segel, right? That'll be the guy that plays me?

Vira: Yeah, yeah. I think it's a good start. It's a good start. Brad Pitt maybe. Yeah. I mean-

Stephen: Ooh, I like that one even more.

Vira: But before we go there, let's do a quick blitz Q&A to get to know you and the brand better. So I'll give you a few questions. Just answer them in a one-word or a few words, okay?

Stephen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Vira: Okay, cool. Let's start. New Jersey or New York?

Stephen: New Jersey.

Vira: Marv-

Stephen: Hoboken, specifically.

Vira: Yeah. And I know why. I think we'll be talking about it on the podcast as well. Marv or Harry from Home Alone?

Stephen: I would say more of a Marv guy.

Vira: Marv guy. My fave. Okay. Bob Ross, yay or nay?

Stephen: Oh, of course, yay.

Vira: 100%.

Stephen: A legend.

Vira: What MLB stadium has the best food?

Stephen: The best food, I would say Safeco Field because their garlic fries are amazing and they just have such an eclectic roundabout of everything you could ever want in food. Definitely.

Vira: Eclectic. Eclectic. I didn't even know-

Stephen: It is eclectic. It's very worldly.

Vira: I didn't even know you can use that world when describing the stadium.

Stephen: I don't even think it's Safeco anymore. I think it's T-Mobile Field now, so I'm dating myself here, but Seattle.

Vira: And you are an expert in the stadium food, so I think we'll-

Stephen: I think I certainly am. I've been to all of them, and I've eaten more hot dogs than probably anybody in America at this point.

Vira: Cool. Amazon or Shopify?

Stephen: Shopify.

Vira: What's the most American movie of all time?

Stephen: The Sandlot.

Vira: Yay.

Stephen: Man, these are lay-ups here. I like this.

Vira: I know, right? Yeah, we have a lot of things to discuss today, and that's a promising beginning. But for those who are not familiar with RSVLTS, and I'm sure there are not so many people left like that in America, Steve, how would you describe/explain what are you doing? For those who don't know, what is RSVLT about?

Stephen: Well, I guess at first look you could say RSVLTS is an apparel brand. It was started by myself and my business partner, who also happens to be one of my best friends. We both went to Seton Hall University together in New Jersey. But at first look we combined licensing agreements with cultural institutions like The Sandlot, Home Alone, Bob Ross, Stepbrothers, WWE, these big brands, and we combined those licenses with high-quality products. Button-up shirts we're really known for, swim, we do a lot of hats, the whole nine. But those forces combined lead to the really unique, awesome products that we're putting out. So at its core you could say, yes, we're an apparel brand, but I think when you dig a little bit deeper it's becoming apparent that RSVLTS is more of a lifestyle.

Stephen: When you wear RSVLTS, maybe people who listen to this know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't, maybe one day you will, but it gives you this amazing feeling when you're walking down the street. Somebody might stop you and say, "Oh, that's an amazing show," or, "Wow, you have the kid from Home Alone on your shirt." It's really conversation-starting, and I think it gives people confidence, it's conversation-starting, it just makes you feel really good. Through a lot of hard work and foresight and a little bit of luck, I think we've built one of the most amazing communities really out there that any brand has. We do meet-ups in real life. We've done a lot of Comic-Cons. We have incredible fan groups online. They're popping up. Some we make ourselves, and others fans make themselves. We call them our insiders. Those are our most loyal members of the community. We do a lot of unique content as well. We have a really strong social strategy. We've seen a lot of growth over the last few years, but I really do think that we're just getting started. We have big plans for the future as well.

Vira: Yeah, and it's interesting that you mentioned your social advertising because I think that social advertising is what you guys do better than probably anyone in the industry. So you are definitely crushing. But can you tell the story. How did you originally start the brand? I think it started as a marketing agency or something. How did you come up with the idea of a brand?

Stephen: You're leading me right down the road that I was going to lead us on anyway. You said social marketing, and I think... At its core, I do think... John and myself, we've always been kind of ahead of the curve with a lot of this stuff, and we've done a really good job understanding where we're at now and where the future might be. With that said, I really do like to think we were very early to the social media marketing game. I really, truly believe we were one of the first social media agencies out there. We've been producing social media marketing campaigns for actually 10 years almost to the month. About 10 years ago, we were at a different company. We started making social media campaigns for different brands, and we would produce content for them that would live on social. We would publish this content on a couple publishers' site, and we went off and did our own thing and really doubled down on the social media marketing aspect of things. We locked up clients like Microsoft, Unilever, some big people.

Stephen: We would do those social media campaigns for the brands, and as we saw it, the times were changing, and we wanted to frankly own more of the budget. So we spun off, and instead of publishing that content on some of our partner websites, we actually launched our own, which was called RSVLTS at the time. It was a blog, and it was almost a vehicle for us to create this content for brands and regular organic content as well and do a lot of the social media tactics that we were running with at the time. Times were changing, and we didn't want to always just be publishers, so we decided to spin off and take more of a direct to consumer play. But it was almost by accident in a way.

Stephen: One summer, I was going to Austin City Limits, and I wanted to wear a cool button-up shirt, so I just figured out how to make it. I had made a repeating pattern, and it was really, really ugly, but it kind of worked. I worked in the concert, and I got a lot of compliments, and it was like that RSVLTS feeling that I was talking about. It was like, "Man, I think we might be onto something here." So I ended up showing John, and he's a creative genius. That guy has done all of the designs for our patterns and is the creative force behind all the designs that we put out. He's like, "Wow, that really has some potential here. Let me clean it up and fix it." That was the first RSVLTS shirt we ever put out, and it was kind of off to the races ever since then.

Vira: And what was the shirt?

Stephen: We called it at the time Bomb Pops & Freedom. We have changed it to America Pops because we've learned through a lot of trial and error about licensing and trademarks. So we didn't know Bomb Pops was a trademarked term at the time, but we called it Bomb Pops & Freedom, and it's the Statue of Liberty with those retro red, white, and blue ice pops that everybody loves during the summer. So that was really it. I was like, "Oh, it'd be cool to have those two things on a shirt." I made the shirt without really thinking about it, and who knew that little weird summer project that I wanted to do for my trip to Austin City Limits ended up being our lives and the future of where the RSVLTS then ended up going.

Vira: Were you not worried about the licensing and stuff? Because it's a pretty gray area, so did you know what you were getting yourself into?

Stephen: No, I mean, not at the time. I think a lot of how the company's been built was a lot of trial and error, just throwing stuff up against the wall, seeing if it sticks, trying new things, all the way from the designs that we take to the marketing avenues that we take. The licensing thing was not necessarily top of mind at the time. When we did this Sandlot shirt, we were so... I mean, it's so amazing how green we were and uneducated on this stuff. I guess ignorance is bliss. We wanted to do these Sandlot shirts because we did a poll with our audience and they said it was the most Americana movie of all time, hands-down, and it really is. It's an amazing movie that people connect with with all ages. You don't have to be my age to love it. Kids love it. It's timeless.

Stephen: So we made these cool Sandlot designs, and we thought it'd be okay if we just changed the name and didn't call it Wendy Peffercorn and didn't call it the Great Hambino and didn't call it The Sandlot, just let people figure that out on their own without us really calling it official. Man, that shirt, this Hambino shirt that we created really took off. Aaron Judge wore it in a post-game interview after he hit the longest home run-

Vira: Oh my goodness.

Stephen: ... in a decade. It was the longest recorded home run that anybody had hit in that decade, and he wore it in a post-game interview where everyone was looking to talk to him, and it just went viral. Shortly after that, I think our worlds came crashing down, but it was kind of the start of the whole company.

Vira: Oh my goodness. That's such a good story. What was your lawyer thinking about it? Or I guess you didn't have the lawyer back then probably.

Stephen: Well, yeah, I mean, I guess I could break into that aspect of the story. But, yeah, so Aaron Judge wore that shirt, the Sandlot shirt that was the shirt that we're known for or at least we were at the time. It definitely went viral. Not too long after that, I'm driving down the road, and I get to a stop light, check my phone, and I see, "Cease and desist." I'm like, "What the heck is this?"

Vira: Oh my goodness.

Stephen: "Oh, God. I'm afraid to even open this." Then I-

Vira: That's not the email you want to receive, especially when the-

Stephen: No, no, especially when... Yeah, we're like, "Oh, we're killing it. This is great. This shirt's amazing. This is our future," yada, yada. We are riding a high. I get Fox, "Cease and desist." I'm like, "Oh my God." I almost drove off the road.

Vira: Oh my goodness. Like, the Fox?

Stephen: Yeah, Fox, like 21st Century Fox. I literally got to the light, checked my phone, opened it. I think I blacked out. I'm driving, and I literally almost drove off the road because I thought my life was over. I was like, "They're going to sue us. Our company is not going to exist anymore." Everything was so great. We were flying in the clouds, and then we crashed right back down to earth, all within a five-minute period, and I'm calling John. I'm like, "Dude, what are we going to do?" That was a really rough day, but it turns out, just through the connections that we made... Seton Hall is an amazing school in New Jersey, and we actually knew a guy that did a lot of licensing there. We had met him at a trade show. On a whim, I just emailed the guy. I was like, "Hey, Michael, can you talk? I need advice here. I don't want my life to be ruined." He gave me a call. We talked. We bounced emails back and forth, and he connected me with a licensing rep that he knew, amazing person. We've been working with her ever since.

Stephen: We actually pitched Fox on the idea of getting an official license, like never even thought that was possible. We were just two guys from Hoboken that were just building this thing as we go. Fox, on a whim, took a meeting with us, which they didn't need to do, but they did. In that meeting, we sold the vision of RSVLTS. It's fans making amazing apparel with amazing designers, really doing justice to their properties, and it was selling it back through creative marketing tactics that we've learned over eight years at the time or seven years at the time. We were doing cutting edge stuff that a lot of other brands and the movie studios didn't even know really existed in terms of marketing. But we merged those two things together, and Fox, I can't thank them enough, it was amazing, but they took a chance on us and gave us a official license that allowed us to officially call them Sandlot shirts, officially call it a Wendy Peffercorn shirt, and-

Vira: That's huge.

Stephen: That was the fuel we needed. That was everything because it allowed us to really crank up the marketing, do more inventory, and really become an official company that has a strong foundation. Because of that, it really set our business off. I mean, we parlayed the Fox license into licenses with WWE, NBC, Major League Baseball Players Association, Disney. We have all these amazing licenses that, really, it all started with Fox. They took a chance on us, and that was possibly the greatest thing that ever happened to us as a company because it validated what we were doing and they really saw the vision.

Vira: Gosh, that's a legendary story. One day-

Stephen: It was crazy. I'm not kidding. I felt my whole life was over.

Vira: One day, they will make a movie about you guys. Maybe Fox will make a movie about you guys one day.

Stephen: That would be sweet. I'm in.

Vira: Right? I know. Clearly, they saw a lot of potential in your product, especially because the design is so unique, the quality of the stuff are so good. It's not your average Walmart/Target t-shirt with the Fox characters, right? So, clearly, they saw a lot of potential. What happened next after that life-changing moment?

Stephen: So many things. It's funny because I think any business owner and entrepreneur, whether you're a small or large business... I think so many things happen, but every day they happen so slowly that when you look at it on a macro scale, it's like, "Oh, man. It just doesn't feel like we're making progress here." But then when you look at it from above, I think it's amazing what happened after that meeting and then getting the license, how much we've really accomplished through just really hard work and just figuring it out as we go. I said trial and error before, but that's really what it was. At that time, we really didn't know about too... I mean, we had concepts and understanding, but we didn't know about massive fulfillment at scale. We didn't know about just bringing things over from vendors and tariffs and shipping fulfillment and doing product marketing at giant scale and just doing the little things, like building creative assets, just doing all these things that we had in our head and we knew was the future of RSVLTS but doing it at a giant scale that it ended up becoming.

Stephen: That is the higher level, "Holy crap, we've done so much over the last three or four years, I honestly can't believe all the accomplishments," but some of the cool things that we've done, we have our office. We have 10 full-time employees and a bunch of freelancers. We're quadrupled a lot of our email lists. We've built, honestly, an amazing community, that we have a Facebook group called RSVLTS Insiders that I think is the life blood of our entire company. We've done Comic-Cons. We've produced a lot of really great content. We've sponsored events. We sponsored a Sandlot reunion in Utah at the original filming location, which was weird because-

Vira: What? That's so cool.

Stephen: Yeah, it was weird. Yeah, because who would've thought? We were making these knockoff Sandlot shirts that we were like, "Oh, this is kick-ass."

Vira: Right? If someone told you that three years ago or four years ago, you probably wouldn't have believed it, right?

Stephen: No. I'd be like, "No, you're crazy." We're making these shirts and then, all of a sudden, we're at this event hanging out with the entire cast and they know who we are, which was so-

Vira: You're like big dogs now, right?

Stephen: I wouldn't say that, maybe, but I just think it's really cool that we believed that we could do this stuff, and it sounds so corny, but we really almost manifested this vision into reality. Another thing that I'm really proud of is just this wholesale program that we're running. Three years ago, we launched something called Shop Local, and the general premise of it is there are tons of... Every town has two or three mom and pop shops that may sell apparel or maybe they sell just random knickknacks or even just local mom and pop shops, might be a sporting goods store, whatever it is. But every town has one, two, three of those. We've done a good job of identifying those stores in various cities across the country and putting our apparel in them.

Stephen: The easy way would say, "Oh, we're direct to consumer. Let's just sell on our website. We don't have to give any money away by selling it wholesale. We'll make more money that way." But the beauty of Shop Local is we're activating our audience to drive foot traffic to these stores, where maybe somebody was on the fence and they didn't know the quality or they really couldn't see the amazing design in person. It gives us the opportunity to show this to our customers or potential customers in real life while also driving that traffic to the store, where it's owned by an entrepreneur. These people are fighting for foot traffic, and if we can drive foot traffic there to check out our stuff and do almost a Jordan-style release where people go to get this exclusive item before it drops online, it's serving a dual purpose. They're seeing our stuff in real life, and they might walk out with a couple additional things from that store.

Stephen: I'm so proud of that. We launched it... The idea came about three years ago. It's been running about two years. I think we've exceeded our three or four-year sales goals within the first year. We're in 100 stores across the country now, and it's really doing well. Despite the pandemic, things are opening, things are shutting down, it's a really iffy time right now, but we see Shop Local as a really strong way that when these stores or when things start turning around and they start opening up, it'll be a really great way to help them turn things back on and keep those employees working and keep their business strong. That's just something that I've been so proud of, and when you ask, "Hey, what accomplishments and what things have happened since that maybe a little snafu with Fox when we got that cease and desist," that's something that I think is just really cool and unique about the company.

Vira: That's huge. That's huge. Supporting local economy, especially in the time of pandemics, good for you guys. Let's circle back to the time when you were deciding on the name of the brand because that's a story that I love. So why naming the company after the 26th president of American? Why didn't you call it Washington or Lincoln or Trump?

Stephen: That's so easy.

Vira: Well, I guess Trump is not a good idea.

Stephen: No, everybody loves... Teddy is the best. I still remember when we started kicking around the name. John and I were on one of our crazy road trips. At the time when we were doing publishing and doing marketing campaigns, Microsoft took a fly on us. RSVLTS didn't exist, by the way. We didn't have a website. All it was was an idea that we put in a PowerPoint. We sent it to Microsoft. We were like, "Hey, would you sponsor this baseball trip that we want to go on? We want to do a baseball bucket list around the country." They're like, "Oh, that's a cool idea. We've heard of you guys. We trust that you're going to do good work. Here's a budget to launch a website, quit your jobs, and go off and do this crazy baseball adventure." So it's kind of a testament to the successes that we had had and the trust that we built with these brands.

Stephen: But with that first campaign that we were doing, I still remember, we were driving from San Diego to Arizona and we were driving through... I don't think it was a national park that Teddy founded, but we started just talking about national parks and all this awesome stuff, and we kept talking about Teddy Roosevelt. Not to get too into detail, but we were just talking about how Teddy Roosevelt's awesome and a really cool name for a company would be The Roosevelts. We kind of sat on that for a little bit. We decided that would be the foundation of the company, and we tried to buy theroosevelts.com, and it wasn't available, and we decided to shorten the vowels or take out all the vowels to make R-S-V-L-T-S.

Vira: Yeah, because who needs them anyways?

Stephen: Who needs them? Eff vowels. We have a funny t-shirt that says an explicit word and vowels. But the premise behind getting The Roosevelts, going through all the steps to get that URL and everything, at its core, it's because adventurer, amateur boxer, writer, conservationist, I mean, Teddy Roosevelt really did squeeze every drop out of life that he could. Like us, when he believed in something, he went for it. He was a patriot through and through. When he was in his office, he... Or after he was out of office, he tried to squeeze his way into World War I. The guy is 50-something years old, and he's like, "I'm volunteering for the war because I love this country and I love everything, the ethos about that unifying force." He tried to get into the war. There's all these crazy stories about he got shot and continued to give a speech. He was just a bad-ass. He's not on Mt. Rushmore by accident. He's there for a reason.

Vira: Yeah, I-

Stephen: Yeah. He's just everything we aspire to be in our lives and for our brand. He's just a good pick and something that we could live up to, and that was just the reason that we picked Teddy.

Vira: So, essentially, he's your brand's spirit animal.

Stephen: He's our spirit animal.

Vira: That's so cool. That's so cool. Obviously, the company evolved so much since that time, but I know that you guys don't sell on Amazon, and it's very interesting to me. Can you tell a little bit more about your decision, why you decided that Amazon is not a good place for RSVLTS? Because, I mean, Amazon is such a good place for free traffic and stuff. People are buying all the time from Amazon. Why did you decide that it's not a good place for your brand?

Stephen: Look, this is nothing against Amazon. I use Amazon all the time. The mic I'm talking on right now was bought on Amazon. So it's not some vendetta against them. But I think for a brand like us, where we look at our customer information very carefully, we've really set the tone for direct to consumer brands on social media. I think a lot of the tactics that people are using today we were using five years ago. So we just were really forward-thinking about how we want our brand to be and everything related to that. It's just one of the core decisions that we made early on, was not to sell on Amazon, because we like to own our customer data. We want to make sure that we can handle all of the marketing ourselves.

Stephen: We want to make sure that all the communications are done in-house, just because we want to offer that official white-glove service to customers and really grow the community. If we were selling some commodity, if we were selling paper plates or Solo cups or podcast mics and not really trying to build a brand, I think Amazon would be a perfect place for that because they have volume. But as a brand that's really trying to grow and last 10, 20 years, I think it was a wise decision to go the Shopify route and really own it 360 degrees.

Vira: 100%. 100%. Taking ownership of your company's growth by taking control of your customers, that's huge.

Stephen: Of course.

Vira: Let's talk about it a little bit because your community that you guys have built is insane. Social advertisement, user-generated content is what you do, like anyone else in the industry. You do it better than anyone I'm following probably. You're crushing it. So in the time that-

Stephen: Oh, I'm flattered. Thank you.

Vira: Yeah. In the time that RSVLTS has been around, how has your social advertising and your marketing evolved?

Stephen: Well, I mean, that is a good question. We always use Facebook, Instagram, those platforms as the front door to RSVLTS. We don't... I can't say we don't. We do have our Shop Local campaign. That does have us in about 100 stores across the country. It's amazing. But it's difficult because we can't have a sales rep at every counter in every store across the country solely promoting RSVLTS. We can't really control that narrative. So through social media, I think we've done a really good job and the focus has been really strong on just building high-level creative that matches the high level of effort and design that we put into our apparel. We would never put out a shirt that wasn't literally perfect and amazing and relatable and didn't have that RSVLTS fingerprint on it. We wouldn't do the same with our ad creative.

Stephen: We've taken a really strong emphasis on building amazing creative for our social platforms, Facebook, Instagram predominantly, but we have in the past done a lot of Snap, Twitter, we've jumped into Pinterest a little bit, a lot of Reddit. But Facebook at its core is the front door to RSVLTS, and through there, once a customer comes in and gets our stuff, there's a really strong likelihood that they'll shop with us again. We'll get them either shopping with us again or whatever, if they don't want to, if they found the shirt that they really like, that's great and I'm perfectly okay with that. But the goal is to get them into our community, get them onto our private Facebook group, get them onto our emails and reading about new drops that we have coming out, getting them following us on Twitter, and really just diversifying the amount of places that we can have these customers... I don't even want to call them customers. Let's call them insiders. Diversifying the amount of places that our insiders can interact with the brand because maybe they're not on Facebook. Maybe they only use Reddit. Okay, let's talk to them Reddit. Let's talk to them on Twitter. Let's talk to them on email.

Stephen: I think that's been the major key and the thing that's set us apart from many other brands. Obviously, like you said, user-generated content, that's been unbelievable for us. People love wearing our stuff and sending pictures of them wearing our stuff. It's such an amazing thing to see that come through and see tagged photos of people doing epic things in our stuff. Yeah, I don't know if that really answers your point, but the social aspect of things and just the community that we've built is so strong. It really wasn't by accident. There was a lot of thought that goes into this stuff, and we work really hard to build that community, and we're just so proud of it.

Vira: Your community is amazing. The engagement there, oh my goodness, it's like you're-

Stephen: Yeah, we started doing these meetups in real life. It's so funny to interact with people.

Vira: Oh, yeah? Like, the physical meetups in real... That's insane.

Stephen: All right. So here's a crazy story. Well, this is a wild story, too. Yesterday, I'm walking with my fiancee home from our office in Hoboken, and I'm at a stop light... Or, well, I'm walking, and somebody's at a stop light, and there's a line of four cars. I hear somebody yell, "Yo, Steve," and I'm like, "Why are they calling Steve?" I'm looking around like, "What the heck's going on here?" He goes, "Good to see you in the wild." Then I turn and there's a guy waving in a car. I didn't have my glasses on, so I couldn't really see him, so I'm kind of waving at the clouds like an idiot. I was like, "Oh my God, that's so crazy. Somebody recognized me walking down the street." I get home, and on our Facebook group there is a post from a person that said, "Oh, I think I just saw Steve in the wild. I'm not sure. He looked exactly like him," and there were a bunch of comments. I was like, "That is an unbelievable testament to the community that we've built, is that whole interaction just happened." It was like a call and repeat.

Stephen: That's the sort of thing that's just so cool because people are really just big fans of the brand. They're willing to travel. We've done these meetups in Austin, Chicago, New York where we'll do an exclusive product, and people will fly into Austin. They'll fly in from Florida, California, Illinois. They'll fly in from all over the country to come meet other people that they've interacted with online, so it's really taking that online experience and moving it offline so you can have some beers with another person or just hang out and just talk to them in real life. That whole interaction and then all the meetups that we've had, it's just cool to see that online community blend with an offline thing. I think that is one of the main reasons why our brand is just so strong right now, in terms of community.

Vira: Yeah. How does it feel, by the way, to be a celebrity? Does it feel good?

Stephen: I'm not a celebrity. I'm anonymous.

Vira: I'm joking.

Stephen: Far from the truth, but, no, it's just cool. It's cool to-

Vira: Such a good-

Stephen: You know what it is? It's-

Vira: Such a good... Yeah, go ahead.

Stephen: No, no. It's just cool to talk to these people and then go to an event and be like, "Wow, that's you in real life. I've talked to you a dozen times"-

Vira: To real people, yeah, yeah.

Stephen: ... "and you're right here," and it's just as cool as you'd think it would be.

Vira: That's often the puzzle that is missing in the eCommerce world, right, because you barely have the opportunity to talk to real people who are buying your product. That's amazing.

Stephen: I think it is. I think that's definitely our secret sauce. It definitely sets us apart. I don't want to give away too much of the secrets, but I think everybody, if they could have that opportunity to really focus on building a lifetime brand rather than just something that's flipping a product or... Nothing wrong with drop shipping or doing quick hit products, but if you're interested in building a really strong brand with a really core audience, that would be my recommendation, is try to do that stuff. Try to make it bridge the online with the offline. I don't know if it would work for everybody, but it's been amazing for us. I think it's been the core of what we've become.

Vira: Yeah. And with your products, your products are kind of conversation-starters itself because I've met those people wearing RSVLT shirts in the streets and it always sparks a conversation, a cool little comment or something. I think on another podcast you even mentioned that some guy met his wife just because he was wearing the shirt and she started the conversation. That's insane.

Stephen: Isn't that crazy, yeah?

Vira: This community basically builds itself.

Stephen: It's true. I like to think we definitely do... John specifically is definitely a brilliant person. But we just kind of kicked the ball down the hill and it just started rolling. But, yeah, people have gotten engaged, at this point more than I can even remember. People upload photos of them at the hospital with their children being born wearing our stuff. I really do think it's a lifestyle. People wear it to feel really good and confident about themselves and start conversations, and it's just cool that people take us on that journey and are willing to share it with the community that we've worked really hard to build. It's an amazing feeling.

Vira: It is. It is an amazing thing, what you've done with your community. Let's talk a little bit about email. So with social-

Stephen: Ooh, okay. I bet you know a lot about this. Tell me something that I don't know.

Vira: Right? I might be a bit biased, Steve, but with social media, website, email, where does email fit in this big beautiful picture for RSVLT?

Stephen: Yeah. Well, we have a very specific formula for doing product launches and just doing communications with people, whether it's a launch comes out, that email is the tip of the spear for that. Then whether it's somebody placed an order and we want to give them constant updates, email is integral to keeping that communication, keeping customers up-to-date. Where, like I'm saying, Facebook and social advertising beyond Facebook and Instagram is the front door that gets people in, email is a really important part at keeping them involved and making those constant updates. It's really become a big part of our launch strategies. People sit there waiting, refreshing their inbox or just looking at their inbox on launch dates, waiting for that email to come along so they know, "Okay, now it's time to go get this product." So email is as strong as it's ever been, and it is one of the most important pieces to our marketing strategy.

Vira: And, essentially, you own the challenge. You can talk to your customer directly, and that's the beauty of the email marketing. And-

Stephen: Well, yeah. And you know what? Something to kind of tack onto that, I think email is becoming an insurance against Facebook in a lot of ways and all these other marketing platforms, where a quick algorithm changed... We knew so many people when we were in publishing, so many different publishers. We had pivoted at the point. We were like, "Oh, wow, these Sandlot shirts are sweet. Let's just do them forever, and we don't have to get"... This is the pre-licensing phase, so we were riding high. But we were like, "Let's get out of publishing so much and diversify revenue streams." I'm so thankful that we did because a lot of the publishers that we knew in our previous lifetime, a lot of them aren't around anymore because of a quick algorithm change by Facebook.

Stephen: All it takes is a couple little changes to search and social and all these other things, where you could be really crushing it as a brand and then these changes happen and it could just put your business completely under if you have all those eggs in that basket. So we look at email as almost the insurance policy, where we own that data. If everything collapses and nothing exists anymore, at least we have this very specific data that we can tie back to customers that can keep everything going. It's just so important to us, and that's why it's just become such an integral part to our entire plans in terms of marketing.

Vira: Yeah, and it does work really great for you guys. So much of email marketing is actually about testing what works, what doesn't work, and we've learned it over the years. Do you guys have any almost unexpected surprises that you've experienced along the way with email marketing, for example, things you thought would work but didn't or other way around?

Stephen: Oh, okay. I have a couple. I was actually just thinking about this the other day. Some things that were surprising would be the idea that... "Let's get our email list"... Okay, so let me start that over again. I think there's a trap that business owners fall into when it comes to email. We fell into that trap. I think anybody that has ever owned a business would fall into this trap, and it's an easy one to fall into. It's, "Let's acquire emails, as many as we can, and the bigger the email list, the more success that we're going to have."

Vira: Oh, yes. That's-

Stephen: At its core, it kind of makes sense, but it's funny that since we've really got into more detailed marketing and really have hashed out our plan and understand how it works, we've found that, yes, a giant email list, that's cool, it will drive revenue, but surprisingly enough, for us, our targeted email lists really curated with curated audiences that maybe they like Bob Ross but they don't like WWE, those lists perform so much better than our main list. That's kind of the trap that I talk about, is maybe business owners, and surprising to me, maybe you shouldn't be focusing on getting the biggest list possible and just acquiring email lists like you're net trawling in the ocean for a fish. Maybe you should try to look to have a more curated email list and build the community around that specific email list. So I think that was a very surprising thing that I learned in the last three to six months, is focus on quality over quantity.

Vira: Yeah, and that's such a rookie mistake that a lot of new business owners and people who are just starting with email marketing are doing. They are just getting the list and starting to exhaust their list with daily emails, relevant, irrelevant, whatever, they are sending it. Then their sender's reputation gets hurt and the dollar per recipient is low. So that's really great that we are segmenting the list, right, and-

Stephen: It's like the golden rule of email. It's like if you were-

Vira: Pretty much.

Stephen: ... a subscriber to a brand, would you want to get all those emails? Probably not, so don't do it yourself.

Vira: Yep, yep. So we are focusing always on sending the right kind of content to the right kind of customer. Thank you for bringing this up because we are talking about it on our podcast continuously. So what about the things that you thought wouldn't work but they actually worked better than you hoped? Was there anything like this?

Stephen: Yeah. I think something that I found that I didn't... It's not that I didn't think it would work. I think everything that we do, we do with learning in mind. If-

Vira: Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephen: If I just took an approach... And this is so me because I will run into a wall 100 times thinking that I'll break through the wall on the 101st time. It's weird, and I think a lot of people that are listening to this, if they own a business or they have that entrepreneurial mindset, I think they can kind of relate to that. But I think something that I really didn't think that would work but I just wanted to try it and thought it was important and not totally scalable was just talking to customers directly via email almost one-on-one. A couple years ago, we had massive, I mean, back-breaking issues with our fulfillment around the holidays. Thanksgiving was coming around, and our warehouse at the time just could not keep up in volume. They weren't receiving products on time. They weren't shipping them on time. It was becoming very apparent that people that ordered things for Black Friday a month before Christmas weren't going to get their stuff for Christmas, which is just... Now, it just sounds so crazy to even think about. But at the time, I mean, you really-

Vira: It's like a nightmare.

Stephen: It was a nightmare, and it was back-breaking for our company. I thought we weren't going to last because we were burning bridges with nearly every customer that we had. So something that I did, and I was like, "This is never going to work, but I'm just going to go for it," was just starting to email customers one by one and real personal, not copy and paste emails, like looking at their order history, looking where they're from, trying to figure out who is this person, and just going one by one for hours and hours and hours and days. It was a week, two weeks of this. But emailing these people one by one just to tell them, "Hey, I'm a co-owner of this company. We really are trying our best. We are not a big brand that you can't reach out. We're not some company that's just trying to make a quick buck. There really is a story and people that are working for this company."

Stephen: I was like, "This is never going to work, but I'm just going to try to have these conversations with customers," and after maybe the 20th conversation, 20th email, I really started to build the momentum. It was amazing and it was inspiring because I would send these emails saying, "Our warehouse is down. They're really far behind. We're working our best to get it," and explaining the situation that we were in. These people were just so understanding, and it was an amazing moment for myself and, I think, the company as a whole because it really did show that this personalization and really putting yourselves in the customer's shoes, if you can have those honest conversations from a brand owner perspective, it really does help and there really is some amazing potential there. It's not really scalable. You can't email all of your customers if you're at the level we are, but any time that there's problems or something we have to explain, I keep going back to that strategy.

Stephen: Yeah, I mean, sure, a business analyst would be like, "Hey, that's not your time best spent. You should be doing this or that." But I love doing it because it allows us to have a real conversation with a real person that went out of their way to spend their hard-earned money with us. I just think by doing that it builds an unbelievable bond with our customers. To your point, I did not think that was going to work, and that was two years ago, and it's still something that I do today almost every week.

Vira: Such a beautiful story, oh my goodness. And-

Stephen: Are you crying over there? Don't cry.

Vira: Almost. You got me here.

Stephen: It was a nice story, but it's not that emotional.

Vira: No, it's a beautiful example. Yeah, I agree. You cannot scale this, but this is definitely the strategy that you can use. You can do a lot of this with automated flows as well, so you can be targeting your customers at the right point.

Stephen: Oh. But how personal is it then, though?

Vira: It's more personal than just the regular, maybe a campaign that you're shooting to your entire list, but I agree. When you are emailing directly to your customer and not using the copy and paste but just talking to them, that's huge and... Yeah.

Stephen: Well, listen, if you know those strategies, you guys have done an amazing job with educating me on email marketing. We were at MailChimp before, and just to be able to leave that and start working with you guys, not only has our... It's definitely cranked up our revenue, but that's, again, not everything. Of course, yes, we got to keep our lights on. I guess you could say everything comes down to the bottom line. But I don't see it that way. You guys have done an amazing job of educating me, and through that education, it starts allowing me to think of bigger and better things that we might be able to try other places or bring things that I've learned other places over to email. It's just been an amazing experience to work with you guys and have that firsthand education and really grow our business through email. So I'm excited to hear that you say maybe we could do more personalization, and that's definitely something I'd love to talk about after the podcast.

Vira: Thank you so much. It's so nice to hear that. We love working with you guys. You are so innovative, and it's just a lot of fun to be working with you, so thank you so much, and thank you for coming to the podcast. I know there is a lot happening right now, and we really appreciate that you could find the time to talk to us today. So I do have just one last question, and this is the classic-

Stephen: I got all day. You can keep going. I am not in a rush, so if you want to talk for five more hours, I'm in. We could talk about other things as well. Let's go.

Vira: Sure. Let's just do it. Okay, yeah. But, seriously, though, we do have this one classic question that we are asking all of our guests, and I'd really like to hear what you say about it. So, Steve, what advice would you give your younger self about starting the business, about going on this journey? What is the one thing you wish you knew before starting RSVLTS?

Stephen: That's a great question. I would think I would tell myself if I was back at junior year of college at Seton Hall University where four of my best friends and I were trying to make this newsletter... Our school newspaper at Seton Hall, nothing against them, but at the time the newspaper stunk. It was just terrible, and we were like, "Let's make our own. Let's do this thing." We decided to make our own newsletter, and it ended up becoming so big overnight. It was amazing. It took over the campus. Yeah, maybe we should've launched a blog, but we were like, "Let's get into print. Let's do this thing right at the tail end of print."

Stephen: But I think I would've told myself at the time when we were doing that that you're not crazy. If you want to build something... I'm going around knocking on doors, trying to get advertising and learning how to do printing, and that's just the way my mind has always worked, is figure it out, try to put all the pieces together to make this bigger thing work together. I think maybe at the time I was like, "Dude, you're crazy. This is just so weird, and most people don't think like that." But I think I would go back and be like, "Hey, you're actually on the right track. You think a little bit differently, but that's a good thing."

Vira: That's a beautiful and inspiration end of the podcast, I think, so thank you for that. Thank you for talking to us today, and I'm sure a lot of people were happy to learn more about RSVLTS. We hope to have you again someday when RSVLTS become a global, huge, huge, global brand and-

Stephen: Well, we're looking into doing global distribution. It's so crazy because we went from not having a single license and almost getting sued by Fox to now we're trying to figure out terms to do distribution in the UK and Europe, Asia, Australia. So, like I said before, I really do think that we're just getting started. We've made a lot of progress through hard work and having amazing people at the company, but I really do think, with the community that we have and the things that we're working on, we really are just getting started. The next years and decades for RSVLTS are going to be really exciting.

Vira: Cool. Well, thank you so much.

Stephen: Oh, you know what? Can I say one more thing, too?

Vira: Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.

Stephen: If there are other people at brands or people that listen to this and thought it was interesting or there's any other things that people want to talk about, definitely hit me up. I am available on DM, Twitter. You can email me. My email is pretty much all over the place at this point. But I'd love to just talk to people. I think this was a fascinating conversation, and I know there's more people out there that think the way that I do or market the way that I do, so I'd love to talk to those people.

Vira: Cool. Thank you so much, Stephen.

Stephen: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Vira: Thank you. Thank you.

Stephen: Bye.

Vira: Bye, Steve.

Alissa: There you have it, guys. We hope you enjoyed listening to Steve as much as we did talking to him. He's a super interesting guy. If you want to know more about his brand, please make sure that you visit RSVLTS.com. That's R-S-V-L-T-S.com. His brand is amazing, and they're just incredible to support, so make sure that you check them out. Just don't forget to subscribe and share this podcast with your friends. We would appreciate it so much. And if you have more technical questions or want to get involved in a community for other email marketing needs, make sure that you join our Facebook group. It's called Klaviyo community. It's super interactive. We have people from all over the world asking different questions that are either technical or practical or theoretical around email marketing. It's just a great space to be in and get some more ideas and inspiration for what to do for your email marketing.

Alissa: If you are interested in getting some more advice on how to establish a solid email marketing strategy for your eCommerce store, we do offer free consultation, so make sure you visit flowium.com/contact and sign up for that free consultation. Again, it's totally free. You get to hop on the phone with one of us, and we just get to talk to you about what you're currently doing and what you could potentially do a little better so that you can boost and maximize your email marketing. So now that Steve has fired you up to get excited not only about your brand and your eCommerce business but to also get going with your email marketing, we want to give you more. Next week, we'll be talking about one of our favorite automations, the flow we truly believe to add serious dollars into your pocket. So if you want to know more, make sure you listen to our next podcast episode. Thank you guys so much for listening, and we will see you next week.

Alissa: Thanks for listening to Email Einstein. Can you feel that? Your marketing brain just got a little bit bigger. We ask that you please use it wisely. You've got all the theory you need to get out there and start boosting your sales because great emails equals revenue squared.

Meet your hosts

Vira Sadlak​

Vira Sadlak​

Podcast host, marketer, traveller and a life lover from Vancouver, Canada

When she’s not at her computer, conquering the world of e-commerce email-marketing, you can find her climbing one of the Pacific Northwest Ranges.

Alternatively, try her email at vira@flowium.com, and she’ll probably shoot you back a list of her favorite cat videos.

Alissa Horta

Alissa Taggart

Alissa is an email marketer that is passionate about relevance!

Her main goal with all clients is to create a strategy and campaigns that are unique to the customer-base. Her favorite part of her role as an account manager with Flowium is to meet with her clients as she loves people. She lives with her husband and growing family in Boca Raton, FL.

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