I’m Bill Rowell at RV Upgrades, And This Is How We Run Our Online Business
Kyle Hungate • January 30, 2018
Name: Bill Rowell
Location: Ohio, USA
Current position: Owner
E-commerce platform: Volusion
In our ongoing series, “How We Run Our Online Business,” we’re delighted to bring you our interview with Bill Rowell, the owner of RV Upgrades. It’s one of the most interesting stories we’ve heard about how he got his business off the ground – leveraging a loyal community with common interests. Now, almost two decades later, his company produces multi-million dollar sales numbers each year and services thousands of customers worldwide.
Tell us a little bit about your business and why you started it.
Oddly enough, we didn’t start out as an online store or have a retail location. In 1998, we created an online RV forum as a hobby and remained active with it for only a few months. We walked away from things, and later on, I realized we had several hundred members interacting in the forums. At that moment we thought we might have an avenue to sell to these members.
Fast forward a few years, as luck would have it, we were right. Today, we have a staff of 27 people who are dedicated to helping our customers find the perfect products for the RVing lifestyle. We focus on unique products that big box retailers typically don’t sell (or want to sell). Many of these items are distributed from small manufacturers that we’ve worked with for many years now. As a result, rvupgradestore.com is one of their preferred sales channels.
I would say our industry isn’t conventional; it’s very close-knit all the way from manufacturers to the consumer. Many times the products that are sold are created by camping enthusiasts themselves.
Now that you’re online, what apps & tools do you rely on to power your operations? Can you describe how you use each of them?
Yes, we use quite a few to help us with our online activities; here’s a quick rundown of what we use and why we use it:
- Answerbase – powerful Q&A tool and provides valuable SEO backlinks
- Aftership – this is a tool that offers order tracking details and text messages to our customers
- Apiant – company that helps integrate API systems
- Shopper Approved – product reviews
- Zapier – we’re able to send customer information to Constant Contact (using Vextras)
- 4tell – product suggestions
- Liveagent – support tickets, returns, and chat
Do you do any pay-per-click advertising? If so, what service(s) do you use?
We use mostly Google Adwords, and invest a small amount in Facebook. Facebook advertising is a bit of an unknown for us at the moment; it seems like lots more of traffic comes from there, but doesn’t convert as well.
Do you sell in other channels like Amazon, Etsy or Ebay?
We tried eBay, but don’t use it anymore. The fees were just too high and hurt our margins. We don’t sell on Amazon because of various reasons that deal with content and product information. We focus all of our resources on building our brand through our store and while it may be a little slower process we are seeing big returns.
How do you manage your products online? Do you have in-house software or do you update things (pricing, stock, descriptions, etc.) manually?
It’s a manual process to manage our product inventory. We know it’s somewhat inefficient, but it gives us the ability to craft content that is good for SEO (and to follow Google’s rules). On that note, we tried to automate our data a long time ago but got hit hard by the Google Penguin update in 2012. It’s just not worth it for us to try to automate that side of our business.
What advice would you give to new online sellers?
The best advice I can give is always be improving. Also, be deliberate with testing & research and don’t try to go too fast. Be willing to work 24/7, and have the stomach for the ebbs and flows.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve had with getting your store up & running?
Product management and optimizing for SEO. Back in the early days, that was not an issue, but as competition and the evolution of online shopping have occurred, it is imperative.
If there was one tool or app created that could solve a huge pain point for your business, what would it be and how would you envision using it?
It would be a program that would go out on the net and collect all of the details on a product and spit out the perfect product description with all of the details a customer needs to purchase it with just the right amount of SEO. I would need to keep that app to myself though 😉
Do you currently use social media to promote your business?
For our baby boomer customer base, Facebook and Pinterest seem to be the best performing social outlets, although we do participate in most of the others.
Do you recommend any books or podcasts?
A New Earth and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle have been a great help on the personal side and Tony Hsieh (Zappos) Delivering Happiness – I have 2-hour commute so I listen to a ton of business books.
I think the biggest challenges for online growth currently are minimizing fraud, automating processes and having the right balance of customer service.
Vextras’ “How We Run Our Online Business” series encourages online retailers to share best practices, must-have tools, and resources that are necessary to building a successful web business. Our goal is to help other retailers succeed online by using these insights. We’d like to acknowledge Lifehacker.com’s series of posts that profile movers & shakers in their “How I Work” series, they’ve inspired our work here with an emphasis on e-commerce. If you’d like to share your experiences, drop us a note, we’d love to hear from you.