It was thirty minutes before the much anticipated midnight product launch.
The founders of NOBULL, a footwear, apparel, and accessory brand for people who train hard and don’t believe in excuses, were counting down the minutes at home since the startup did not yet have an office.
That’s when the phone rang.
“It was the factory calling,” co-founder Marcus Wilson recalls. “It was terrible, we thought we were going to be able to ship shoes to customers in 2-3 weeks but at the last minute, our manufacturer was telling us it’d be 4-5 months.”
The launch clock was ticking.
Would-be customers were on NOBULL’s site waiting for the clock to strike midnight to purchase as Todd Meleney, NOBULL’s brand manager, dropped off the call with the factory to update the site and deliver the news to the brand’s most loyal followers. “Asking customers to wait longer was rough for us and for them,” Meleney recalls.
“How is this going to work,” Wilson remembers wondering. “I mean it was January, and we were now asking customers to trust a completely new brand to deliver their shoes in May or June.”
It never should’ve worked.
That is until it did.
The clock struck midnight and a minute later NOBULL had its first purchase; the first of many that night and many thousands in the year to come. “People were still buying despite the delivery delay,” Wilson says. “For customers to believe in us on that level- it was just amazing and confirmed we were building something special.”
Not bad for shoes NOBULL’s founders hadn’t been able to test as extensively as the big brands. The big brands spend 18 months planning, developing and testing new products. NOBULL does it in 4 months. “Mainly out of necessity," says Co-Founder, Michael Schaeffer.
“We don’t have the luxury of significant amounts of time to test and retest. As a startup, NOBULL is constrained in ways that the big brands are not,” says Marcus Wilson. “Fortunately, Michael is the best designer I’ve ever seen. We did one round of testing, got product feedback and Michael turned it into a single round of adjustments that we didn’t see until production was done. That’s unheard of.”
Skip Work & Start a Business
Michael and Marcus kept in touch after working together at Reebok years ago and had often kicked around the idea of starting a business together. So Wilson skipped work one day, hacked together a business plan over the course of 14-hours that was based on all of their previous discussions, and sent it to Schaeffer.
Ten minutes later the two were officially partners.
The company the pair began building would eventually evolve into NOBULL and count Ben Bergeron, the well-known owner of CrossFit New England and coach to many elite athletes, as its third partner. In targeting CrossFit enthusiasts, NOBULL was building a brand the opposite way many do these days.
Rather than tout gimmicks or technology as the secret weapons to improving fitness or athletic performance, NOBULL was founded on the tenets of self-reliance and personal responsibility. “Our shoes will not make you fitter,” Schaeffer says. “The only thing that’ll make you fitter or a better athlete is you working hard day after day.”
NOBULL certainly isn’t for those looking for a shortcut.
And it exists, in part, because of a well-timed prayer.
An Entrepreneurial Dice Roll
Here’s how it normally works in the world of athletic footwear…
Industry giants spend about 18-months designing, wear testing, and iterating until they have a pair of shoes they’re confident will sell. Just before going to market the big footwear makers are provided what’s known as a “confirmation sample”; a pair that proves the manufacturer can perfectly produce the shoes being ordered.
In essence, it’s a guarantee.
But it’s a blueprint NOBULL tore up and tossed aside because as a startup sometimes you have to think differently.
“We didn’t have that luxury,” Wilson says. “We made some changes and improvements based on wear testing and customer feedback but didn’t have time for a confirmation sample which means we had to go with Michael’s gut on our updates. He provided detailed feedback to the factory and they nailed it!”
Wilson and Schaeffer happened to be at CrossFit competitions scattered across the country when the initial production run arrived. “I go there and saw the boxes stacked up,” Wilson recalls. “I just finished setting up the booth and refused to look inside the boxes because there was nothing I could do if there were problems.”
Eventually, though, after the booth was set, NOBULL’s moment of truth could no longer be avoided. “I said a prayer and opened the box,” Wilson says. “As an entrepreneur, sometimes you just have to roll the dice.”
It was a roll of the dice that panned out.
The shoes were amazing.
Midnight Launches Aimed at Diehards
The early days at NOBULL are the stuff of entrepreneurial lore:
Future employees like Jed Magnusson interviewed on exercise jump boxes in the company’s warehouse
Stacks of paper orders laid out on the warehouse floor blew away when the door was suddenly opened and a gust of wind swept in
“In the early days you just don’t know what you don’t know,” Wilson says of the company’s growing pains.
One of those pains is the envy of ecommerce merchants around the world; demand too robust to keep pace. “We launch all of our products at midnight because right now demand greatly exceeds supply,” Wilson says. “It’s a way to make sure our most loyal customers, those who are willing to show up and shop at midnight, are more likely to get what they want.”
But there’s no guarantee.
NOBULL shoes have become so popular that even customers showing up at midnight sometimes leave empty handed. “Sometimes the shoes sell out between the time a customer adds them to their cart and checks out,” Wilson says. “It’s astounding we’re selling out before people can even check out.”
Remember, this is a no excuses target market clamoring for NOBULL shoes; a growing audience ready to buy immediately and all at once when the clock strikes midnight to avoid missing out on the shoes they want.
It’s a market that won’t likely put up with slow loading site pages. And certainly not a site crash at the stroke of midnight.
We Need a Bigger Boat !
NOBULL’s midnight launches are getting bigger and more frequent.
In fact, the company launches new products every few weeks or so which had the team beginning to sweat the massive spikes in traffic. “We needed a scalable solution that could handle the midnight rush,” Wilson says.
The company got the scare of a lifetime when it noticed site traffic exploding well above its estimates prior to a midnight launch on Black Friday. “The number of people on the site twenty minutes before the launch was amazing,” Wilson says. “We were worried the site would crash. It was like the movie Jaws. When the guys first saw Jaws they said, ‘We need a bigger boat.’
It’s why NOBULL upgraded to Shopify Plus, an enterprise ecommerce solution for high volume merchants that aimst to create rich and memorable customer experiences that inspire repeat customers. “Shopify Plus grew with us and gave us the bigger boat we needed,” Wilson says.”Shopify has the bandwidth and scalability to meet the extreme demand that comes with our launches.”
Remember the Black Friday launch the company was so worried about? It sold out in minutes without a hiccup. “We always give our Shopify account manager a heads up prior to a launch,” Wilson says. “He takes care of us and we’re confident Shopify can handle anything.”
Not worrying about technology frees NOBULL to focus on ROI-generating tasks entrepreneurs should focus on instead:
Integrating the site’s creative and marketing aspects
Putting more thought into customer service & feedback initiatives
Being more strategic in email marketing
“We don’t stress anymore about the site crashing,” Wilson says. “It’s quite amazing that using a tool like Shopify we can start a business and a year later sell to people all over the world, and compete with billion dollar brands.”
Stop Making Such Amazing Products
In just a year, NOBULL is turning heads across the globe:
NOBULL shoes are being worn by elite CrossFit athletes
NOBULL shoes are now being seen in CrossFit boxes all over the world
NOBULL has retail partners in 11 countries
Communities of rabid brand aficionados are even popping up and sharing their NOBULL accomplishments on social media. Expect the product line to expand in the future but the NOBULL attitude to remain the same.
"We can’t worry about the billion dollar brands,” Wilson reveals. “Our opportunity is to continue to create powerful connections with customers.”
But what about the rapid fire launches every few weeks? Might customers one day become irked that the pair of shoes they just bought is no longer the latest and greatest NOBULL shoes on the market and abandon the brand?
“Actually, the opposite is true. People write to us tongue in cheek saying, ‘Please stop introducing so many amazing products because I’m buying them all’,” Wilson says with a grin. “People joke that they might as well do a direct deposit with NOBULL because they’re buying so often from us.”
About The Author
Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.