Finding and Expanding Your Audience with Kurt Elster (Ethercycle)

In this episode, we talk to Kurt Elster to get his best advice for early stage ecommerce founders. We cover topics like finding and growing your audience, understanding your customers, and protecting your mental health.

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About this episode:

In this episode, we talk to Kurt Elster, founder of Ethercycle and one of the most highly-regarded independent consultants in the ecommerce industry.

We discuss his best advice for finding and expanding your audience, gaining a more complete understanding of your customers, and maintaining your mental health while striving to grow your business. We also clear the air on exactly what that new store speed report means and whether or not you should be concerned about your grade. 

Kurt is a wildly entertaining interview, so if you’re interested in hearing unfiltered advice from one of the most notable voices in the business, you’re going to want to make time for this episode.

Want to be a guest on our show? Have feedback or ideas for how we can improve? Send your thoughts over to We’ll be keeping an eye on that inbox. 🙂

The Ecommerce Insights Show is brought to you by The Good, a Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) consultancy specializing in helping ecommerce businesses accelerate their growth through better research, testing, and design. Learn more about our team, our work, and our services at

Episode transcript:

James Sowers: [00:00:00] All right, correct. Welcome to the show. Thanks so much for taking time out of your day to join us. And I’m really excited to dig into everything you guys have gone on with either cycle and talk about some big picture trends and interesting stuff that you see in e-commerce in general. Um, but before we get in, if we skip past the life story and just start with where you’re at today and what you’re doing with Ethercycle, can you give the folks two or three sentences about what you’re working on right now?

[00:00:20] Kurt Elster: [00:00:20] I am in year 11 of running a Shopify partner e-commerce agency. I day to day I do a BizDev, which includes both selling projects but realistically producing a ton of free content. Is really what I describe as business development and, uh, doing strategic consulting. So our core competency really is, uh, front end development, uh, theme development and putting stores in the best possible position.

[00:00:50] To sell more stuff more often for Shopify merchants, right? Or notable clients, Jay Leno’s garage, a Sutra, which is a Venus Williams backed brand, um, largely known for automotive stuff who Nigen, uh, uh, Ken blocks who Negan racing site. We did that as well. So a lot of fun stuff. 

[00:01:08] So if I were to ask you like, what is one. Maybe client project, one campaign wants something for the agency. Like what is one thing you’re working on right now that has you really excited that maybe hasn’t been introduced to the world quite?

[00:01:18]Kurt Elster: [00:01:18]well, are you familiar with overlanding? Yes. Yeah. Okay. So for people don’t know overlanding is the, the combination of off-roading and camping.

[00:01:27] It’s essentially rich people’s camping is really what’s going on here. Or like people who are very dedicated to the outdoors. You’re like an outdoors extremist. Anyway, I’m, I’m a car guy. I love it. And I love gear and gadgets. And so I’m very excited to be working with the team at, at, uh, and this may be the scoop.

[00:01:45] I don’t know that I’ve told anyone this, uh, the, the team at auto, anything in X Overland to build a website dedicated to overlanding accessory and gear and reviews. And I think it’s going to be really cool. 

[00:01:57] James Sowers: [00:01:57] And so that’s exciting to you, not just because it’s a new client project, but because it’s kind of an area that you’re passionate about personally, on the personal front.

[00:02:03] Right. Cause I understand overlanding is like, it’s basically a land Rover with something on top that pops up into like a tent or some kind of that would be like, yeah, that’s like the quintessential setup, right. Or it’s coming out of the back, you put the hatch up and then you add a tent to the back and you park it on the beach or whatever.

[00:02:17] And you’re just kind of camping on the beach with a fire and your dog. And you’ve got these little like Moscow mules and your copper cups and that’s. That’s how I picked her over Laney, but that’s probably not anything close to reality. 

[00:02:25] Kurt Elster: [00:02:25] No, actually that’s pretty close. It’s like, yeah, it’s really like the Instagram version of off-roading and camping, but it really like that the depiction is what it’s really like ignoring like all the times that you break stuff.

[00:02:40] Um, but yeah, no, you’d get yourself an expensive offer vehicle. Like a, an  50 Raptor would be my choice. I love those. Or a land Rover and then get yourself like a popup tent that goes on the back or the roof. And certainly roof racks, lifted suspensions and unreasonably large tires should be involved.

[00:02:58] James Sowers: [00:02:58] Right. You never know what kind of surface you’re going to be trying to maneuver up or down. So you need the tires to accommodate anything. I imagine that’s probably an area that’s like gaining a lot of steam right now with everybody’s stuck at home. They want to get outside of their four walls and they can’t necessarily go.

[00:03:11] To the restaurants and stuff that they’re used to. So it’s like, Hey honey, grab the kids, grab the dog. Yeah. 

[00:03:16] Kurt Elster: [00:03:16] Camping, uh, RVs. Uh, and off-roading, and overlanding all of those categories just exploding right now. So I’d like this offer overlanding is kind of a, is a combination of several of these, these wonderful activities that are also enjoying, um, quite a resurgence at the moment.

[00:03:36] James Sowers: [00:03:36] That’s awesome. That that’s super interesting. And I know besides the client work and some of the products that you’re putting out, you guys also have some Shopify apps. There’s like an apps aspect to the business too. So I’d like to explore, or that for just a few minutes I think you have three or four right now, and I’m guessing those come from client pain points, but I’d love to hear your story or at least your description of how you come up with those ideas, how you find problems worth solving, and then how you go about getting those apps built and added into your portfolio and how you think about them integrating with the agency work that you’re doing.

[00:04:05] Kurt Elster: [00:04:05] So pretty clever you’re right. All of them did start as a thing. We built a feature. We built into a theme for a client. It’s something where we went, wow, we’re really proud of this. Can we build a backend admin for this? Where it installs itself into a theme? It makes it relatively universal and it has settings and controls.

[00:04:23] And then if we could package that up, well, that’s an app and an app really represents, um, somewhat passive monthly recurring revenue. And so that’s a great, especially as an agency where you. At all levels of agency, you run into the feast famine cycle. And so having recurring predictable recurring revenue in any business, I mean, that’s why merchants love subscription is, is quite the bone.

[00:04:48] So that’s how I saw and came to find like, Oh, we can and should sell apps in the Shopify apps. And we have four, three are forgettable. And one is, is Crowdfunder, which is a tool we built. Um, I believe it was LuminAID who, They, they give a lot of money to charity they’re selling. Um, I think led lanterns and they said, you know, we want, we essentially want a Kickstarter experience, but we want it on our website.

[00:05:16] We want to own it. We want to control it. Can, can this be done? And, you know, like how can you do it without an app? It had to be built into a theme. Cause we had time, like we were really constrained on time. I think we had like a week to do this. And so we did it, we built a full, the proof of concept in which like we tracked inventory on products with variants and it was like here’s how many people, um, it, and really it was looking at the inventory level.

[00:05:40] Um, here’s how much money was raised. And then here’s like percentage goal and a countdown timer. The whole thing worked. I said, man, if we could build a backend for this, that’s a really cool app. I think a lot of people could benefit from this thing and sure enough, we were able to, uh, we were able to do it.

[00:05:54] And you know, that, um, that app, that app itself has generated $120,000 for us. So that like, and th there’s really very little work involved in that. My wife does most of the support part time. Like most of it’s just. Um, you know, the same questions that are in the FAQ, but no one read it. So you just kind of copy and paste the answers.

[00:06:14] And then the other support requests are like, no, I can’t add that feature. That’s too crazy. Or, Hey, our auto installer failed. That happens. I’ll do it for you. Yeah. 

[00:06:24] James Sowers: [00:06:24] So is it fairly limited in scope? Is it basically like a way to presale a product or does it also. I support the traditional Kickstarter model, where it’s like, if you back us at this amount, you get an additional incentive.

[00:06:33] If you do a higher amount, you get even more, you know, can you do that? It’s fine. A tiered incentivize it. Or is it, 

[00:06:39] Kurt Elster: [00:06:39] you make that, that mistake and everyone does this. So what you’re describing is just variants. Make a variant option called backer level. And then in, at your backer levels are like, you know, a gold, silver bronze, right.

[00:06:53] And then say, all right, they’re one 50, 150 bucks. And then just describing the damn product description, what they get. You don’t need any app for this at all. And so you just do that and then pair you, but the missing pieces. All right. We need the social proof. And we need the urgency and that’s what our app is adding back in, though.

[00:07:12] Those that critical element that you’re missing and it’s doing it in a really, um, simple, sane way where it’s not going to chew through, um, it’s not going to mess up your load time. Okay. And any developer could easily modify this thing if they wanted to. And at this point they have spent around a few years and we’ve seen people do some really creative stuff with it.

[00:07:32] And what’s interesting is those are the people I never hear from. Cause they’re like, they’re, they’re, uh, confident. In working with a theme and theme code and they, so they go easily find the app, figure out how it works and then mess with it. I love it. The support is the people who are like brand new.

[00:07:47] They’re like, uh, how do I get this to work? So it’s like, okay. You’re like, let me, your early, let me help you out here. And so sometimes it’s like kind of the hardest part is doing the support. And then, but within the support empathizing in a way where, like, you don’t want to talk over someone. But a talk over someone’s head, but you also don’t want to condescend to them.

[00:08:07] So try to figure out like where they are in their experience level or merchant journey, and then responding accordingly. That is like the weird nuanced support skill I did not expect to have to develop. 

[00:08:19] James Sowers: [00:08:19] Yeah. I think empathy is one of those core skills that applies to all areas of your business, ideally, right?

[00:08:23] Like in customer support is the most intuitive one. But even in marketing itself, the more you can put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re talking to and try to communicate with them. You know, using their perspective to inform like the recommendations you make or whatever, the better off you’re going to be.

[00:08:37] Kurt Elster: [00:08:37] It’s interesting for me. I go ahead. I didn’t learn empathy until probably about five years ago. For me, empathy was a learned skill. I didn’t have it. I went to therapy and had to figure it out. I am the son of an only child, the son of I’m a third generation of only children. And, um, I was a year, many years ago, disowned by my parents making me effectively an orphan.

[00:09:05] And, uh, my mother was very likely, a little strange. And so I literally had to learn empathy. They, it did it through therapy. So for me, it’s like empathy literally is a learned skill. And so I, um, it’s something that I practice and in many ways, I think that my relationship with it is a little different, um, It’s more active, but then at the same time, occasionally I just make like really obvious mistakes than other people.

[00:09:31] Wouldn’t. 

[00:09:32] James Sowers: [00:09:32] Wow. That’s super interesting. And I guess as somebody who is a self proclaimed like extrovert, you know, I’m a marketing guy. Like that comes naturally to me. It never crossed my mind that that would have to be. I know some people don’t always take time to empathize with the other person when they’re interacting with them.

[00:09:45] Right. Like we were so wrapped up in our own day to day experience that we forget to pause and think about what might be going on in the other person’s life. But as far as like it not being a native skill at all, and something that you effectively have to get taught to you, like riding a bike or something like that, um, that never crossed my mind.

[00:09:59] So, I mean, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I know that adversity oftentimes makes us stronger. It makes us better off in the long run and I’m sure that’s the case with you, but yeah, that’s so interesting. 

[00:10:09] Kurt Elster: [00:10:09] I don’t regret any of it. It made me it now I’m in a tremendously fortunate position that I’m very grateful for.

[00:10:17] And it just, the, the events that made me. I can’t look at them and go, like, I wish none of that happened because then I’d be trading places with someone else. Like I would no longer be me. And I’m extremely happy with where I am right now and who I am. 

[00:10:29] James Sowers: [00:10:29] I mean, let’s, let’s talk about that a little bit, because like, where you’re at right now is, you know, I saw your face for the longest time on the Shopify partners marketing site, right?

[00:10:37] Like you were in the hero section, big and bold sitting right there in danger. Right. And so, um, I’m sure that that’s been a great source of new business just for you, but what I want to talk about, I guess, is bet that, and the podcast that you’re doing and all these other, um, info products that you’re putting out and stuff like that, that puts you in close and frequent interaction with early stage e-commerce entrepreneurs, I would think.

[00:10:57] Right? So like some of those nations brands and just kind of getting off the ground, trying to get to their first million. And, um, I’m curious, like, Assuming that’s correct. And assuming you do interact with these folks and not just the Jay Leno’s of the world, um, what is some advice that you find yourself repeating over and over again, to those folks who are just getting started out and trying to like climb the Hill to get to a point where, you know, their business is stable and self sustaining and stuff like that, those early stages, it can be the hardest sometimes.

[00:11:23] And I’m curious what advice you repeat over and over to those folks? 

[00:11:28] Kurt Elster: [00:11:28] The, the biggest mistake I see early merchants making. Everyone makes this mistake I made this mistake 10 years ago is no one starts with the audience. They always start with the product, the offer you need to start with, I’m going to build the audience.

[00:11:49] I’m going to figure out the pain or problem. Then I’m going to solve that. The audience is the value. Recently, Shopify had a data leak where, and this is, this is all public there. Just a statement about it. The FBI, they, as soon as they identified it, they got the FBI involved, um, shut, uh, Shopify, support people.

[00:12:06] And I don’t know if they were employees or contractors exported, uh, the customer data from some of the largest stores. Why would they do that? Why would they, why would they risk their jobs, risk their freedom to get the customer data. Because the list, the customer is the value. It is the business in an online business.

[00:12:25] That is your core asset. That is the thing. That’s what costs you the most time, money and resources together yet? Not the product development, not the marketing that went into launching a product, the audience, right? That’s the real value. And if you underestimate that at all, you’re just slowing down how long it’s going to take you as soon as you figure it out and accept it, life becomes much easier.

[00:12:52] James Sowers: [00:12:52] Yeah. I love that advice because I do think it is such a common misconception, like folks. I mean, the product’s super important. That is like, yeah, if you build it, they will come. That’s just straight up a lie. It, flatly is not true. Well, and I think a lot of people think they can skip ahead by buying an audience through Facebook ads.

[00:13:08] Right? Like that’s the playbook you got

[00:13:12] Yeah. See what the price is today. It’s like gas, it goes up and down. It fluctuates. And you hope that you catch it at a low point or you have an audience that has low competition and you just get involved there. But I think maybe a better example, what would be, um, like Pat Flynn, who started with an audience through smart, passive income, saw an opportunity in the market.

[00:13:29] Created a product called switch pod, which is like this little tripod that you can put your camera on. And it folds up and becomes like a flogging handle, basically like a selfie stick. And he had the audience launch the product, and I have no reason to believe it’s not doing fabulously well. And so maybe that would be a good example of what you’re recommending, which is like, start with the blog, start with the podcast, build your audience, find the problem that the audience has and then build a product to solve that.

[00:13:52] Kurt Elster: [00:13:52] Ideally. Yeah. And like you want the overlap of this is a thing I’m passionate about. Like, this is my, I have a core interest and, uh, this is what I can write about, or like what I think there’s an audience for, or I have some unfair advantage where I’m like, I already start to have access to maybe an existing audience.

[00:14:13] And so that really like, that’s what you want because that, that look innate love and enthused. Awesome. For whatever your niche is, is what’s going to drive you. So for me, I have been interested in a knackered by entrepreneurship since I was a teenager. And so our, our show is really, yeah, my content and my podcast is about celebrating entrepreneurs and enabling entrepreneurs.

[00:14:38] And I, I also have been doing, I’ve got, I love eBay. I have a 1400 rating on eBay. I started on eBay, um, 20 years ago. So. I with the way I see it. I have been working in e-commerce for nearly all of my adult life. And so like, where I am now is just because I leaned into that. I knew like, I love it entrepreneurship.

[00:15:01]I’ve got a natural, I’ve got a, an unfair advantage and I’ve this longterm experience in e-commerce so that overlap. Okay. I could create content around that. And then I figured out. Ah, I could do extemporaneous speaking. And so I, I, and I, people co I was guesting on podcasts. Uh, just talking about, you know, what it’s like to try and grow an agency.

[00:15:20] And several people said, Oh, you should start your own podcast. And so it turns out like that was an unfair advantage. I had, I had a natural skill and then I could do, I could do a podcast is harder than you’d think. And certainly like, I mean, I’m in year five of doing a podcast. When I listen to year one, I’m like, Jesus, I should delete this.

[00:15:36] It’s so bad. I’m like, it’s a skill. Yeah. You develop over time. But like, I, that you just look for those, those things, an overlap of like interests and enthusiasm and unfair advantages and innate skills and wherever in the Venn diagram in the middle is like, Oh, E-commerce entrepreneurship, like cool, like, doing e-commerce for direct to consumer automotive websites.

[00:15:59] Right? There’s the overlap. You can find that that’s when. It just becomes about stacking the bricks where it’s like, all right, I’m going to release one podcast, 50 downloads to podcasts, 150 downloads. Right. And pretty soon after five years you turn around, Oh, I have a, I have a podcast with 1.3 miles, at least 30,000 people know who I am.

[00:16:18] And so it’d be, but I only need eight clients. Realistically, if I had 12 clients, I’d be tearing my hair out. 30,000 people know who I am and I need eight clients at a time. Well, of course, I’m going to be able to cherry pick the fun ones. The easy ones are the good ones, because all I do is go about and talk about what I like.

[00:16:34] And I didn’t have no reason to believe that literally, anyone can’t do that at some level, it’s simply a matter of doing it long enough. And that’s where they get tripped up. Because I think you need to, you probably be doing it for at least two years before you really make that impact and start to get that traction.

[00:16:51] And then talk like I’ve been doing this 11 years. It took me six years to figure it out. And then five years to get to an audience of like, you know, uh, of, uh, uh, you know, 10,000, 20 to 30,000 people. It’s tough. It really hard, but a lot of it’s just about endurance and showing up. 

[00:17:04] James Sowers: [00:17:04] Well, and people, a lot of people get discouraged in those early stages because they see something like 50 downloads into them.

[00:17:09] Like that’s insignificant. But if you think about 50 people in a room, right, or even like 200 people, all of a sudden you can’t fit them in a room, you got to put them in an auditorium and imagine standing on a stage talking to 200 people and how you would feel like. I know it’s not a direct correlation, but like that’s pretty similar to 200 downloads on a podcast list.

[00:17:27]Kurt Elster: [00:17:27] And assuming they listen mostly well, you know, I told you had asked me about YouTube videos and I was like, well, it’s always disappointing when you upload the video and it gets like two, 300 views. Right. But if I spoke to your right, if I spoke to a room with 300 people in it, that’s a win. I’ve done that.

[00:17:38] And I like thinking I can vividly picture it because when I really like I did a, I spoke at Shopify pursuit, um, twice, and the first time I did it, like, I, I really gave it everything I had. And that had maybe 150 people in that room. And I still look back on that fondly, but then when I see the video with 150 downloads, I was like, man, that sucked, right.

[00:18:00] What’s the difference, right? 

[00:18:01] James Sowers: [00:18:01] It should be same, but it’s so hard. It’s just our natural inclination to not weigh those things the same. And, and, you know, it’s just something that you have to be mindful of and try to be intentional about overcoming. You know, when we talk about, um, this, this advice for early stage e-commerce founders, if you’re comfortable with it, I think it might be cool to discuss this in terms of, um, the wife’s, your wife’s store that you’re working on.

[00:18:19] Right. Www DW. And I want to, you know, I want to be sensitive of the fact that like, maybe it’s not the once in a while because the parks were shut down and everything. And so like, if that’s not something you want to include, that’s totally okay. But I think you guys have, let me fire up her, her theme music.

[00:18:21] Yeah. Nice. Um, so you guys basically started this from scratch, right? Like this is a passion project. Love going to the parks or whatever, saw a demand in the market. Maybe had some audience, like, tell me about the, the, um, the origin story, I guess, is the term from, from the X-Men comics. Like what’s the origin story of www?

[00:18:36] Kurt Elster: [00:18:36] So my wife had been, she had sold, uh, she had sold an info product and been successful with that and she ran a, um, uh, an accounts receivable business. It was essentially. It was a, like a SAS, a productized version, uh, and friendlier version of debt collecting. They’re kind of skirted played to the law and wasn’t quite debt collecting.

[00:18:59] Um, and it was very successful, successful enough that she quit her job and she hated it. Absolutely hated it. And we went to Disney world, um, as a family, uh, like it was a whole huge family trip. Uh, and she coordinated planning the whole thing. And when you include like all the kids and stuff, I think it was 16 people and none of them like were particularly enthusiastic about planning for Disney world or she loved it.

[00:19:26] So she had put together all this info on it. And I said, man, like, you gotta put that in, uh, an email, like try and sort them do an email. So she did that and they said, wait, once you got that, what, like I had other people would pop up and I could see they were talking about going to Disney world. I said, man, are you going for the first time?

[00:19:44] Oh my West. Cause she planned for a year. Yeah. So during this time like, well my wife put together all this info. Why don’t, uh, can I send it to you? I’d copy and paste afforded them. And I was like, well, what are we doing? So you turn this into an ebook. And so we went we’re at the park and I remember we were staying at Porter lanes and we’re walking over to the river and she said, I’m going, I’m going to turn this into a business, but we didn’t know what it would look like.

[00:20:06] Right. And so, but she immediately, like we figured out the domain name, we put up the site, she may spent two weeks just. Crafting articles, just creating a ton of content to launch with, put that up. Then I turned around almost immediately started a podcast, started a YouTube channel, started producing videos and, uh, started a Facebook group, like just started with the audience.

[00:20:27] And then we’re like, well, how do we monetize it? So she had an ebook, she had a guide, uh, that she was selling and, uh, she was selling, um, Then we started adding tee shirts that were print on demand and we added, um, Affiliates stuff, uh, in like two weeks agent to like a whole bunch of added so many revenue channels, just to see which is the one that’s going to stick.

[00:20:51] And it was all done at this. Like we launched with a ton of content and a complete brand, and we made it very personal. Like it’s her, the site loads with her face to camera talking. Um, and, uh, talking about experience, like I’m a mom. I wanted to get the most out of the trip and it’s all specific, like niche to park planning, content.

[00:21:10] And adjusting it, adjusting it. Finally, it was making money this year or last year. And then into this year, by the end of this year was going to make real money and a pandemic hit and the travel disappeared and all the parks closed and really like, it, it, it decimated her business. Um, and it’s been extremely difficult.

[00:21:30] It’s been depressing when you had, when you’re so close to success. And then to have it, you know, just go, you know, well, you gotta put it on pause for a few months. You gotta put it on pause for a year. And now it’s like, eh, you’re probably going to put it on pause for about two years, realistically. Right.

[00:21:44] That sucks. 

[00:21:46] James Sowers: [00:21:46] Well, I think it’s important to tell those stories, right? Because most podcasts focus on success stories and they might talk about like a little adversity along the way, but to have that kind of dramatic, you know, decimation really of the business just as it was about to get some traction is important to share because that’s a fact of life.

[00:22:02] Right. And the, and the goal of our conversation today, and most of the conversations we have is like, how do you either avoid that? Or how do you push through it and come out better on the other side? And like, um, what I love about the story you just told. Tying back to talking about starting with the audience and not the product is like with Walt Disney world, the audience is there.

[00:22:19] You know, there is a massive population of raving fans of Disney world and all the parks and the characters and everything associated with that. And what I heard in your story is she had a product and the market was essentially pulling that from her. Like they were reaching out and grabbing for it and she just had to find the right way to package it up and present it to them.

[00:22:37] Whereas a lot of people, I think, start with the product and they try to. Force it upon the market, thinking that everybody else has experiences, just like theirs, they have the same problems as theirs. And it’s like, if you don’t start with the customer research or if it doesn’t already exist, like it’s, it’s kind of well known that it’s out there, then I think you’re gonna stumble a little bit because you don’t know for sure that there’s enough demand to really build a business on top of 

[00:22:57] Kurt Elster: [00:22:57] here’s a great question.

[00:22:58] I like to ask people, I go tell me about a customer and they tell me, I said, how do you know that? They said, we just know. I said, have you ever interviewed one of your customers? No. You ever surveyed when your customer no. So that’s really your, what you think you know about your customers is actually a best guess.

[00:23:13] Isn’t it? You’ve really just got, I kind of stumbled upon success. Unknowingly. You have no idea who’s buying your product, or why do you. Right. When they’re like a light bulb clicks, 

[00:23:25] James Sowers: [00:23:25] what’s even worse. Is they go? I know, because I am my customer, like I’m scratching my own niche and it’s like, well, yeah, sure.

[00:23:31] I guess, but you’re just one person. Right. 

[00:23:33]Kurt Elster: [00:23:33] And there aren’t, it’s a decent way to start, like off the story. The entrepreneur stories I hear Barry Mo are almost always, I had a painter problem in my life. I researched the solutions. They all sucked. And then I asked myself, why not me? That’s like the first critical question that gets you started as an entrepreneur, because so much about life, especially American life.

[00:23:50] If you’ve gone through, uh, American public schools, instead of like a Montessori school, uh, is you’re waiting for permission for everything, they beat that into you. So that you’d be a good factory worker. And so you gotta unlearn that shit. You ask yourself. Why not me? Oh, Mo a lot of what I do is just give people permission to go do the thing they want to do anyway.

[00:24:09] So if you can. Gain that, and then you have this pain or problem in your own life and they go, well, you know what, all the solutions suck. I could make a better one. Why not? That’s often, that’s where you see the successful person. Who’s like, um, I was my own first customer, but there’s also, you know, in that scenario, you’re really like in, when we’re doing those interviews, it’s confirmation bias.

[00:24:28] The people who tried and failed, where are going to be like, Oh, let’s do an interview about it. Right, right. You only hear from the successful people. Um, so you’ve got like, uh, um, Success bias there as well, where like I survived it, therefore survivorship bias where like it, for me, therefore it worked for everybody.

[00:24:40] So, you know, take it with a grain of salt. Um, but no risk, no reward. I don’t know where I was going with that. It’s all right. Sorry. 

[00:24:45] You want me to pitch the question again? Yeah. Just start from the top. Uh, sure. All right. So maybe that’s a good opportunity for a transition here, because I know you appear on a lot of podcasts. You used to go do a lot of conference talks back when that was a thing. And I’m guessing most people want to talk to you about marketing or CRO because of the work that you put out there publicly.

[00:24:57] But I’m curious, is there a topic around e-commerce or running an eCommerce business that you don’t get asked about a lot, or you don’t have the opportunity to speak about a lot that you’d like to take a few minutes here. If we open the floor to share with the listeners. 

[00:25:08]Kurt Elster: [00:25:08] Okay. Well, I. I, the thing that we always hear about is like success and hustle and grind and I’ll sleep when I’m dead like that.

[00:25:14] Just utterly absurd. Hashtag girl boss nonsense from, from Instagram. That is it. It’s important in that it’s meant to motivate people, but I think longterm, it, it sends the wrong message and it presents. Self care as, as weakness. And so like, yeah, the excitement and enthusiasm of building the business is really the hustle.

[00:25:36] That’s what lets you grind through in the early days. But eventually you need to take some time for yourself. It is not sustainable long term. Like your brain is not. A, uh, a gas motor. You can’t just keep dumping gas into it and hoping it keeps going. And at some point there maintenance is required of a human life.

[00:25:55] So I believe in self care strongly and yeah, I’ve already, I’ve already admitted that until 2015, I did not have my emotion chip installed. So I think it’s. We may as well stick with, um, some of the mental health talk here, but I ultimately, I think entrepreneurs, uh, can have a tendency to be incredibly hard on themselves.

[00:26:16] One of the most powerful things my therapist ever told me was, and I’ll never forget it was Kurt. You’re too hard on yourself. I was like, what I am. And if that was one of those permission moments where she had just given me permission to not be so hard on myself, where I was like, always beating myself up about essentially steadily building a successful business, not fast enough.

[00:26:36] That’s crazy. I got to where I wanted to go. I just was mad that I wasn’t getting there fast enough. And I think a lot of people are in. That position where they’re getting down on themselves for no reason. And when you beat yourself up like that, you’re not going to go any faster and you’re not going to be any happier and you’re not going to be any more fun to be around.

[00:26:54] So. Taking a break, appreciating the journey, appreciating where you are, um, engaging in self care. And I think that looks different for everybody. For me, it was like, all right, I’m going to go to therapy. And then I’m going to get a recreational medical, marijuana card. Um, that sort of thing, like, whatever, it it’s different for everyone.

[00:27:13] I’m going to go fly my drone and ride my bike. Like, that’s the stuff I like to do. Um, but. Taking time out for yourself and then not beating yourself up about your successful business, not being successful enough or your early stage business, where like, just count your wins, celebrate your wins. Um, and I wish I wish more people talked about and acknowledged that cause on shows.

[00:27:34] Like mine and others, all we do is hold up. These wildly successful outliers. We’re not looking at just like, this is an average lifestyle business. And I very much view myself as having a lifestyle business. Many of the people I interview are way more successful than me. Um, and I am totally. Totally am happy in a good place and very fortunate.

[00:27:52] And I really, I want that for everybody, but it’s not going to happen unless you work at it quietly. 

[00:27:58] James Sowers: [00:27:58] For sure. It’s something you have to be intentional about. You have to schedule time for it. You have to find a support system for, or else it’s going to kind of. Flare out or fizzle out and then it’ll never really take hold.

[00:28:07] I think there’s some tie ins between that and the survivors to shit bias that we talked about earlier, where it’s like, Hey, I started a, I was my own customer. I built something to solve my problem. And it worked out and look at me because you know, those people are the only stories we hear on the podcast or on YouTube or wherever else.

[00:28:21] We’re like catching those stories. And I think in the same way, this hustle and grind mentality is the people out there promoting it are the ones that haven’t broken yet. Right. Or at least they’re willing to pretend that they haven’t broken yet. And it’s like, yeah, that might be working for you now. But does that mean that you’re going to have this catastrophic crash further down the road, versus just like these mini periods of burnout, that people experience, you know, in their normal day to day life.

[00:28:41] And I think the point maybe is like, you know, even if you see examples of this, supposedly quote unquote, working for some of the people that you trust or that you think are experts like that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be your experience. And it might just mean that they’re setting themselves up for a bigger fall.

[00:28:56] Whereas if you take the time to maintain your mental health, now you don’t have to put yourself at risk for anything like that. 

[00:29:02] Kurt Elster: [00:29:02] Yeah. I think that the thing that we’re not seeing, like Instagram, social media everyone’s content marketing is everybody’s highlight reel. No one’s posting about the time, like they had a cashflow problem or, Oh, we screwed up our taxes and got a giant tax bill, both things that have happened to me.

[00:29:17] It happens. Um, and certainly I did post about it on social media. Like yeah. You Pat myself on the back, like every, all these other entrepreneurs on Instagram. Um, the, um, Oh, where was I going with that? But I think you. Nope. Nope. I lost it. Hold on.

[00:29:25] Uh,

[00:29:25] okay. No. Um, so yesterday I talked to a huge person in the eCommerce space, like just, uh, someone with a big audience that everybody looks up to who has a, a, um, uh, an eight figure business, really quite tremendous. And he’s like talking about how, uh, how tired he was and how burned out he was, because it happens to everybody.

[00:29:47] They just don’t talk about it online, everyone at all levels and all stages of business will run them, sell at some point will just run themselves too hard and they need to take a break and that’s totally normal. And it’s like, that is a skill you learn as an entrepreneur where like I learned to, I can recognize it.

[00:30:06] And when it happens, I know I just, I take a break for a few days. That’s all it takes. And then I’m back at it. Cause when you’re able to recognize it early, you’re able and you know what to do about it. Ah, it’s much easier to get past it. 

[00:30:19] James Sowers: [00:30:19] Yeah. And it can be hard because you, presumably you’ve built up some momentum business is going pretty well because you’re working so hard on it.

[00:30:25] And you’re like, if I take time off now, I’m going to lose all of that. And 99% of the time, that’s not true. Like you could take a week off, you could take a month off and your business is probably going to be okay. I mean, you can’t foresee something like a global pandemic or anything like that, but in the absence of that, like if you’re fairly far along in the process and you’ve been working hard, you’ve probably laid the groundwork for everything to be okay until you take the time, you need to get back to 100% and then get back at it.

[00:30:48] Right. And I think over time you get better at seeing this before it happens and you see the warning signs and you know that you need to take time off before. You already experienced some of those burnout symptoms and just completely crashed to the ground. Um, so I’m curious now that we’ve talked about, you know, Finding ways to not pull your hair out.

[00:31:06] I want to ask you a question that’s gonna make you want to pull your hair out. So let’s just say I have a store and, uh, I’ve got this fancy new tool that Shopify may or may not have put out that tells me my page speed and my load time. And, uh, it’s telling me that I’m scoring something like a 24 out of a hundred.

[00:31:21] Can you help me fix that? 

[00:31:23] Kurt Elster: [00:31:23] No, I can’t. It’s just not realistic or possible or a worthwhile use of your time. Here is my issue. I think websites should be fast. I think a fast website doesn’t hurt and a slow website. Doesn’t help. But I think Google page speed is a garbage tool for measuring page speed. Why is it applying an arbitrary might?

[00:31:37] Oh man. My Google just stopped talking. We’ll leave that in. Don’t worry. Yeah, it says it brought it up like. My Google home started telling me about page speed. And I’m like, no, no, no, no. I think Google page speed is a utter early garbage tool for measuring a site load time. And my reason for that is it’s assigning a largely cherry letter score to a website without, and it’s doing it across all sites and treating them all the same when that just is not practical or reasonable.

[00:31:58] And. It, I found it baffling that Shopify, when they added, when they said, Hey, we’re building our own performance tool. I was thrilled. I said, great performance is important. And Google page speed is a lousy measure. So please give me a sane metric. Give me a, you a sane tool for this. And instead. It’s just Google page speed inside the Shopify admin.

[00:32:17]Right. I, I truly was disappointed by that, but it’s not like it’s set in stone. Certainly they could change it. Yeah. In the future. I hope they do. I heard a rumor from one person who knew a guy that said they were talking crap. Probably. Maybe it’s it’s a rumor. Um, I hope so. The, but like, what’s so silly about it is if I want to know the performance of a website.

[00:32:31] In any web browser or with any number of tools I can determine what is the size of the page and how long did it take to load and read? I had sane metrics for this. If you said, Curt, how fast is your car? I would say, well, it does zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds. I wouldn’t be like, Oh, well, on the motor trend, a quickness performance report, it scores a 66 out of a hundred on highways and a 34 out of 100 on Overland streets.

[00:33:01] Like what in the hell did you just say to me? But that’s what Google page speed is. We reinvented a metric for a thing that we had a perfectly sane and legitimate and reasonable metric. Right. And so when you attach a letter score to it, merchants should see that and go, Oh my God, I’m getting a D minus in the freak and I don’t blame them.

[00:33:20] And so they tear their hair out and it gives them,  like, it’s quite disturbing when they, you, then you hear these source. So it’s, they’re going to put, make that a ranking factor. You’re going to lose all your organic traffic. Now. They’re really not. All right. And some neck beard told you that, but it’s not true.

[00:33:34] And somebody just wants to drive clicks to it, blog for their own stupid business, told you that. And it just isn’t true. The reality is every query on Google is a question. You’re asking a question in every search result and Google’s and answer. And Google just wants to give you the right answer for the question.

[00:33:49] And what they’re going to do is either gonna use page speed as a way to, decide two things. We’re going to take the same spot. The one that has the faster result is going to go in slot one and then the other one go in slot two. That’s fine. That is not the end of the world. It really isn’t. Um, and a lot of the recommendations that Google page speed make are maddening and just make for websites and Shopify stores that are incredibly difficult to maintain and prone to breaking.

[00:34:16]James Sowers: [00:34:16] Yeah. And so it sounds like a case of the intent was right. The execution was poor, right. But the fact of the matter is your site could be loading slow. But you just, we shouldn’t rely on that score in isolation as an indication of how well your site is performing, what would you write? 

[00:34:30] Kurt Elster: [00:34:30] You can load it on your own phone, a computer, like, were you able to do it?

[00:34:33] Was it slow or are you still getting orders? Well, shoot, you’re getting a 12 out of a hundred on page speed. I’ve clients who are getting 12 out of a hundred on page speed and are doing a million dollars a month. Oh, well, how’s that possible? They’re getting an F minus minus on page speed in their million dollar a month.

[00:34:50] Business. Stupid. 

[00:34:53] James Sowers: [00:34:53] And I think I saw somebody with like a sterile template right out of the gate, like a basic template that got less than 50, you know, like 35 out of a hundred. It’s like, what has no plugins,

[00:35:01]Kurt Elster: [00:35:01] 35 out of hundreds, about as good as it gets on Shopify. 

[00:35:04] James Sowers: [00:35:04] Yeah, that’s crazy. Um, so would you, so when somebody, you throw it into, like, aside from low loading it on their phone, like, would somebody throw something into like a GT metrics and use that as a more reliable indicator and then try to figure out the problems from that?

[00:35:15] Kurt Elster: [00:35:15] Yeah, man, I mean, honestly, you could just use the web browser. I just use the network. It’s the network tools in any web browser will tell you here’s the page size and the load. Um, if I’m not using that or like a more, uh, uh, like a third party, independent metric where I could keep retesting, like I have gigabit internet at home and all our phones are LTE.

[00:35:34] Like everything is going to load super fast unless I’m in a rural area or I’m stuck in an elevator shaft, which is actually one of the ways I test to see. Test for performance issues on re uh, on sites that are too huge. I’m like, what if it’s low drive a script’s loading, an incorrect order. I will go stand near our elevators in our office building or signal.

[00:35:50] It’s a, that’s quite a trick. Um, the anyway, no. So a rule of thumb, like the site is five megs or less. It’s fine. If you can get it to two and a half max or less, it’s fast. Yeah. If it’s over five, you probably up, you did something dumb, like you put up images that are too big. There’s a bunch of apps you want installed that are still loading.

[00:36:10] I honestly that’s the rule of thumb. It’s totally fine. And then on the pay on the time, uh, if it, if it loads in like less than three seconds, that’s awesome. No, one’s going to think twice about it. Yeah. 

[00:36:21] James Sowers: [00:36:21] Yeah. It’s like imperceivable right to the human eye or whatever. Like it’s not slow enough for anybody to notice.

[00:36:25] And I think like 90% of the time, this isn’t my area of expertise, but 90% of the time when I see people talking about page speed, the consultant or the agency that fixed it for them, they said, I compressed images and I removed like a latent code from apps that were uninstalled that was still running in the background or something like that.

[00:36:40] And like, yeah, if your site’s slow, do those two things time. Yeah. Yeah. So there you go. And go ahead. If you want to take that as a consultant and charge 10 grand for it. Go ahead. Um, cause people will probably pay it cause they’re freaking out about their scores. Just don’t there are people. Yeah. There are predatory people who will do that.

[00:36:49] Yeah. Um, okay, cool. So I want to switch gears yet again and have a fun question for you. So we’re all locked up inside. For the most part, we can get out a little bit more now than we could. Yeah, it’s terrible. Um, but I know you’ve made a couple of impulse buys. Like you’re, you’re a little click happy over there, um, shopping around.

[00:37:00] And so I want to know two things. One, what is the. Coolest or, or most fun product that you bought while in quarantine or whatever you want to call this like intermediate phase that we’re in right now. And, um, secondarily maybe they’re the same thing. What is the purchasing experience? It was the most enjoyable.

[00:37:16] So if we were going to nerd out on user experience or like something that you do professionally, what was the best purchase from that perspective? So twofold question. 

[00:37:22] Kurt Elster: [00:37:22] Okay. Number one, I think the, the coolest or the most fun I’m going to go with are the arcade cabinet. I have wanted arcade cabinet in my house since I was a teenager.

[00:37:31] So I’m 37 now. I’ve always wanted one. And I’ve been looking for a used one for years, for several years at this point, couldn’t find one. And I finally bought, you know, like I’m not going on vacation. I’m not spending money on gas. Like there’s just, there’s extra income. And so I didn’t feel guilty about buying a, uh, it’s called, uh, a Mame multi arcade machine emulator.

[00:37:52] And so I’ve got this arcade cabinet that runs thousands of games. It’s so fun. It’s so cool. Um, it was 850 bucks on Etsy. Uh, and they had a Shopify store in an Etsy store and their Shopify store scared the hell out of me. It did not look trustworthy. And I know it’s just cause they put in the effort to finish it or set it up.

[00:38:11] But even then me and e-commerce consultant, I’m like, eh, I wanted the protection, the third party protection of a marketplace like Etsy. So I bought it from the money. Let’s see. And it was a good experience. It showed off. I love the machine. Um, it’s a ton of fun and my kids, uh, my kids love video games, so it was cool to see.

[00:38:27] Our kids be able to play all these old games and get really like a very balanced, uh, history, rich, uh, the history of video games experience. Right. But it was cool. It’s fun. And, uh, but I pose this question to my wife and she goes a hundred percent where they’re not a pandemic where we were saving a bunch of extra money and we didn’t need three cars anymore.

[00:38:48] Um, So a hundred percent, our pandemic purchase was, uh, her, her Tesla model S 100 D. So we bought her a Tesla. It’s our first electric car. I love it. And then top of it, I went nuts and I got it. Vinyl wrapped. So, if you’re not familiar instead of repainting cars, you can actually just put what’s essentially contact paper on them is totally cool.

[00:39:09] Will works last many years. And so she has like a bright satin, yellow, gold kind of color, shifty, just gorgeous car. And that’s pretty insane. Um, but the. The Tesla purchasing experience is bizarre and wonderful. That’s an interesting online purchase. You don’t when you buy from them, you just go like here’s their used inventory.

[00:39:34] They’ve got filters. You filter down to what? I bought a used one. I’m not crazy. And, um, before everyone’s like this, dude’s a baller. Now I bought, I bought a three year old Tesla off Lee’s and so you filter it. But to get exactly what you want. And they’re like, here it is. Here’s the price. And then just click, buy, pay, uh, pay deposit right there.

[00:39:53] And then later they’re like, okay, the car’s moving. You’re going to be able to pick it up in a couple days. ACH us the down payment set up. Uh, ACE or ACH the whole payment and then finance. Well, you literally do the entire thing through a website and then they just, they text you. They don’t even call you.

[00:40:08] They text. It’s like the entire thing was built for introverted millennial weirdos like myself. And so they, then the text, you just go, uh, to either they deliver it to your house or you could go to local dealership. And then when you show up a guy wearing a mask, says. Hey, the papers in the car with a pen, go sign it and bring it back to me.

[00:40:27] And then that’s it. You just leave. 

[00:40:29] James Sowers: [00:40:29] Wow. It’s funny that that’s the part that has to be analog, right? Like they don’t have you sign an iPad or I don’t know, do a retina scanner. I’ve done like doc, you sign that. Yeah. Like just text me a link to sign, but you’re right. Yeah. That’s a good point. I didn’t think of that.

[00:40:30] I mean, it was still a wedding signature. Like if anybody can buy. A vehicle online, three commerce, then what? Anybody? Yeah. Anybody else’s working on, like you can make it happen. Right? How hard can it be? Maybe the only caveat to that is like, uh, drugs and alcohol. You don’t want to sell those online at least.

[00:40:46] Kurt Elster: [00:40:46] Oh no. Sierra Nevada brewing is one of my clients. Oh really? Because of this initially, because of the pandemic, a lot of those state regulations were relaxed and now it is much more practical and reasonable to ship alcohol across States. Wow. Yeah. I used to do some consulting for like a subscription of the month, a box of the month kind of subscription for high end spirits and liqueurs.

[00:40:46] Totally different than beer. At least it was when I was working on it, but like you would run into volume issues. So it was like, we couldn’t be too successful because we couldn’t ship more than a certain amount to Idaho or we’d get dinged. And they’d like reduce our shipping partners like license, or they put them on pause for 30 days.

[00:40:46] So it was like, Alcohol is just so weird, you know, um, all those things that have like vice taxes around them, governments really want to keep a tight hold on it. I I’ve noticed. So it’s like, it’s kinda crazy. Um, but yeah, that’s, that’s an interesting experience of the Tesla thing. And then the arcade I love because like, I was fortunate enough to have a single video poker machine when I was growing up.

[00:40:54] And I thought that was the greatest, you know, I’m standing there on my, on my, uh, stool, cause I’m not tall enough to actually reach it. Yeah. And then I had to hit the button to like bet and everything. Like, my dad taught me the whole concept of like Texas hold ’em. And so, and cause it was all just fake money.

[00:41:06] Like he would open the door and there was a little switch you could hit to add more credits. And so it was like, it was all fake money or whatever. And uh, yeah, I just remember playing that all the time, especially on Christmas when the family was over and it was like so boring, like I just wanted to check out and I’d go over there and just play video poker all night.

[00:41:19] And so fond memories about that. But I can’t imagine having thousands of games and a single unit available to you at any time, how do you get any work done? I know the quarter door or credit switch you’re talking about. Yeah, it’s like a little wire. It was not, uh, it was intended for home use. It was not like an actual, it looks like an arcade machine was built for home use and that I can’t leave well enough alone.

[00:41:26] Um, well, listen, before I let you go, I got one more fun question for you and I’ll put some limitations on it. So if you could do anything professionally, that is not related to eCommerce, and let’s just say like marketing in general, right? Like you can’t use CRO or anything like that. They might be advising clients on, like, what would you see in another life?

[00:41:41] Like Kurt Elster doing for a living 

[00:41:43] Kurt Elster: [00:41:43] if I had a different upbringing and it was a different life, there’s a parallel universe. I. App, I believe wholeheartedly, there’s a parallel universe in which I’m a successful, but probably kind of douchey plastic surgeon. That would be the bizarro version of me. And I’m pretty squeamish.

[00:42:04] So I don’t know how that would work out like this bizarre universe. I’m like cool with surgery, but for whatever reason, cosmetic surgery of which I’ve had none. Uh, absolutely. I find it. I find it fascinating and interesting, and I want to think that I could. Be successful as a plastic surgeon, because it’s also like business and marketing combined with elective surgery.

[00:42:24] I think the whole thing’s fascinating. 

[00:42:26] James Sowers: [00:42:26] Yeah. That’s interesting. So you should get the white coat and you should make that like a marketing campaign. Like we’re going to come in and we’re going to dress up your website, right? We’re going to revamp your website. That’s what we’re going to do. 

[00:42:35] So yeah, I could see it. I could see it in another life.

[00:42:38] That’s an interesting answer to the question. Um, Cool. Well, maybe we’ll wrap it up there. That was fun. A little bit of fun to cap things off. And before I let you go, this is your opportunity to let folks know where they can learn more about Kurt Elster and everything at Ethercycle. And anything else that you want to plug here?

[00:42:51] Kurt Elster: [00:42:51] Uh, absolutely. You should Google me. Google Kurt Elster had to Kurt You can find all my resources there, but number one, sign up for my newsletter. It comes from my actual email address. I went through so much effort to make it so hard to get to just email me. And the people desperate want email.

[00:43:08] We never figure out that my newsletter is my actual email address. So I just reply to any of those emails. You sent me a thoughtful question. Interesting anecdote. I will absolutely send you something back. 

[00:43:17] James Sowers: You took one of my best hacks because I subscribed to so many Lu newsletters and I filter them into folders that people are like, how do you filter through all that noise?

[00:43:23] I’m like, you don’t understand. I do it just so that when I need to talk to that person, I hit reply and I either get them or their assistant. And if I have a decent enough cold outreach email, it gets forwarded on and I get to talk to that person that that’s always been one of my legs. If anybody asks, it’s like, that’s how I get in touch with people who are above my station for lack of a better term.

[00:43:39] And it’s because they care about what their newsletter subscribers are thinking and saying, and they want to form relationships there. Yeah. And if I’m naturally one of them and I reach out and I just happen to present them with an opportunity to come on the show or something like that. Um, I’ve gotten a really good response rate from that.

[00:43:51] So yeah, that’s a great life hack. 

[00:43:53] Kurt Elster: I’m open. Like that’s the way I want it to work. And the people figured out like, okay, they get free advice from me. 

[00:44:00]James Sowers: Just use it responsibly folks. Don’t abuse it. Um, all right, Kurt. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it had a lot of fun, uh, here in your life story.

[00:44:07] And we went on a bunch of tangents, but I think there’s a common thread in there. And some folks got some really good advice. If nothing else, you know what they know that page speed is just a manufactured illusion and we don’t need to pay any attention to it unless it comes from a reputable source. 

[00:44:20] Kurt Elster: [00:44:20] All right.

[00:44:20] Well, thank you for having me. It’s been my honor and pleasure. I got a hard stop two minutes ago, so I gotta get outta here.

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James Sowers

About the Author

James Sowers

James Sowers is the former Director of The Good Ventures. He has more than a decade of experience helping software and ecommerce companies accelerate their growth and improve their customer experience.