Building a Successful E-commerce Acupressure Therapy Business
Title: Building a Successful E-commerce Acupressure Therapy Business
Profession: Founder & CEO, Akuspike
My name is Paul de Jersey, I’m from Vancouver, British Columbia. I’m 27 years old and I am the founder of Akuspike Products Inc.
Akuspike is a Vancouver based business that imports products from Eastern Europe and Asia, then redistributes all across the world. We focus on acupressure tools that are designed to optimize recovery and muscle function. These are self-treatment tools you can use anywhere, at any time.
Currently, we have 4 products and we’re looking to expand our product offering where we see fit, but for right now we’re focusing in the acupressure space.
It’s probably cliche to say, but I kind of always saw myself as having an entrepreneurial spirit dating back to when I was a young kid. I grew up a hockey player and that's all I cared about when I was younger. That was my main focus and my goal was to play in the NHL. I took hockey very seriously and that led me to some amazing places.
I ended up playing in the BCHL which is one of the top junior leagues in Canada. I led the league in scoring and won MVP of the entire league earning me a full ride scholarship to Providence College in Rhode Island.
I played hockey and got my business degree, but even while I was there I wasn’t really focusing on business at all. I was just thinking hockey, hockey, hockey. It’s funny, in business school I wasn’t really inspired to do any business.
It was really just nuts and bolts and I wasn’t getting that tangible experience I thought I needed. There was nothing wrong with Providence, it just wasn’t the right medium for me to learn.
My hockey career didn’t go as planned. I came to realize that I wasn’t going to make the NHL and I could probably keep playing in the minor leagues my whole life, but I always knew I wanted to start my own business. So, essentially right after Providence I was looking for ideas, working with other startups, and learning sales and marketing.
After college, I got a job at a company called Eagle Energy with one of my buddies who actually founded this caffeine vaporizer. It looks like a pen and is a vaporizer where you inhale caffeine.
It wasn’t a product I was really passionate about, but I was passionate about this startup lifestyle. The guy who founded it was 23 and raised a bunch of money, so I got that early insight of what you can do with an idea.
I saw him go out and raise a million dollars. It really inspired me to say look, this isn’t necessarily the product I see myself aligning with but I definitely see myself aligning in the consumer goods market. It became -- How can we find a product that we can sell? How can we find something that we can rebrand and do our own way?
I think a lot of people get tied up in trying to invent the next Facebook or the next crazy software, but sometimes its worth staying simple and thinking what’s already out there that I can make a little better? How can I create a cool brand? Is there something people might already be doing that there’s still space for me to participate in?
I spent a year and a half at Eagle Energy before I came across this product, pretty organically, with my trainer. He’s an ex Cirque du Soleil performer and he was my hockey trainer.
He showed me this acupressure mat he had laying around the gym and told me all the Cirque du Soleil guys use them and swear by them. I was dealing with some back pain so I tried out his mat and I absolutely fell in love with it.
Instantly I knew I could sell this thing and I didn’t know why it wasn’t available in North America. I had no business plan, I had no idea how to do it but I just said to myself, “I can sell these”.
The initial idea phase for Akuspike took a lot longer than I anticipated. We had the idea for about 6 months, but we didn’t get the product until about a year later. It took a long time to get the initial order funded.
We were dealing with a Ukranian supplier and I didn’t speak any of the language. I’m so thankful Sergei, my co-founder, speaks Russian and Ukranian. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with these suppliers.
There was a limbo phase where I was just really trying to figure my life out because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. This product kind of serendipitously fell into my lap.
It was tough balancing finances at the time because I decided to myself I wasn’t going to make any money for a year. I had to figure out how I can keep the cash flow coming in so I was coaching hockey and picking up odd jobs to just keep some income coming in while I was getting ready to launch this thing.
When I started it, I was leaning on some people that I’ve learned a lot from like Gary Vee and Tim Ferriss. Essentially, they have this theory that there’s no such thing as a side hustle. I was under the impression that you got to go all in on this, otherwise it’s not going to work. So I made a conscious decision that I’m all in on this. No matter what happens, I’m at least doing this for 6-7 months. I’m going to try and sell this no matter what, I’m not finding another job, I’m going to accept the fact that I’m not making any money and I’m going to try to get this thing to market.
When we first launched, we didn’t have a brand, we didn’t have anything. We just bought the product and I started selling them locally to people I knew just to see if I could. We wanted to validate the product and concepts before we dug too deep into our brand and distribution strategy. We literally just bought the product and started selling it with no plan. I think that’s what honestly worked best for us. We just took it really in stride in the sense that we knew we were hustlers and we knew we could move them.
We just started selling locally to stores without packaging. The first sale is one you'll always remember. Our first sale, I was talking to this trainer and he just said “I’ll buy a mat for 50 bucks” so I ran back to my house to get it. That was one of the first guys I talked to and he bought it.
Once we saw people buying it and we got good feedback, we started to realize we could move these, people would really buy them. This was more important than spending all this time on social media, distribution, or how we’re going to brand and sell on Amazon. Now it was time to get serious on our brand and figure out how we can work with these suppliers and actually set this business up to work.
The first year was slow for us. Dealing with suppliers and keeping the cash flow in order was something we’ve been constantly balancing, so we’ve done a bunch of financing rounds. Our first round, we did a family and friends round in which I think we reached twenty five thousand dollars.
These people wrote us checks for 10 or 15 thousand, and it’s a small investment in the startup world, but for us it was a really proud moment to say that other people believed in this too. If some random person is willing to give us 15 grand, I think we got something here. So that initial financing round was able to propel us for a year.
Fast forward a year, we did another round where we raised two hundred grand. It was a more serious round where I put together a really solid pitch deck and spent about a month soliciting investment and that investment gave us the runway to get where we are now.
The big thing that happened for us during that year is we went on Dragons Den, Canada’s version of Shark Tank. I went out with three of my NHL buddies from Providence and that was our coming out moment. We had an amazing show, multiple offers on the show and we ended up closing a deal with Arlene Dickinson.
It was a 150 thousand dollar investment at a 1.6 million dollar valuation. It was the highest round we ever did. She bumped up the valuation and we were able to bring on a behemoth investor.
We finalized that investment and now we’re working closely with her team to really scale this thing up. We’re now in a position to really turn the gas on for our ad spend, and we’re in a serious growth stage right now so it’s very exciting for us.
This never would’ve happened if we had never raised that initial 20 grand. To do that, I think you just have to have the confidence to talk to as many people as you can and you’ll find people that actually want to help you. Sergei and I were always transparent with the people we were talking to.
I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by some angels in my community where other people don’t have access to that. I was fortunate to grow up in a great neighborhood and to be able to find these people. That being said, I did go and find them. I spent a lot of time looking for them and I took a lot of “No’s” at the beginning.
What gave me the confidence was that I believed in myself, but I also really believed in the products. I saw firsthand, people experiencing back pain, or plantar fasciitis and when they used the acupressure balls, I saw insane feedback on them.
So I really knew that the product was solid. I didn’t actually invent the product myself so that’s why I’m not afraid to say that this is an incredible device. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but this device has had clinical studies done on it and it really does work.
I think first and foremost, we had a really good product. You can be a master at raising money, but if you don’t have a good product, you don’t have anything. If you’re launching your business, you have to validate the product concept before you do anything else.
It’s a little different for every industry for how to validate your concept. You can validate with traffic and page views and feedback, and for us it was direct feedback on the actual product. There’s different ways to validate it, but it has to be outside your friends and family telling you it's a good idea, it has to be people you don’t know buying it. You can find them anywhere, Amazon, Facebook, even in a store.
We went to stores locally in Vancouver and they picked it up right away and we were selling in stores right off the bat. Don’t try to sell a thousand units right away, try to sell 10, then try to sell 20 and then see what happens. I think a lot of people get caught up in the idea of how they’re going to sell a million units and promote on social media, but just sell one unit before you think about all of that.
So, in terms of automation one of the first things we did is to register our Shopify account. I would recommend this to anyone. Personally, I don’t have any design background or software skills, so Shopify was incredible and how we built our site.
I think it’s important to get your site up there, and it’s a constant improvement, you’ll never not be working on your site. We make changes to our site every week and we’re always optimizing it and tinkering with it, but you can never learn what you need to optimize if you don’t have the site to begin with.
If you don’t get that initial traction, don’t worry if it’s not perfect, just get it up there. See what’s converting, how your pages are performing and I think Shopify is a great place to start. One thing that’s huge with Shopify is you can collect their data so we get access to know exactly who’s buying it and we can start conversation with our consumers.
With Amazon, you don’t get access to that, you don’t even know who's buying it so you can’t upsell them. A lot of people may argue that the fees are too high on Amazon, but I think we have a great blend of distribution.
There are people that only buy on Amazon and there are others who like to support small business and shop on Shopify, so we sell on both. You can argue who’s better, but we use both and it works well for us.
We also do a lot on Instagram, and we try to stay as active as possible. We’re constantly posting, but more importantly we’re starting conversations online. We’re always DM’ing trainers and influencers etc.
So Instagram, more than posting, I think is morphing into more of a communication platform. It’s really hard to stand out as a product, everyone is getting spammed and is sick of seeing ads. So, if you can actually just show people your real business and have conversations, that’s a lot more effective than putting out ads on Instagram.
In terms of Facebook and Google, I have two guys that handle my ad accounts. I would recommend finding a guy if you’re not comfortable managing the platform yourself to handle that for you. I spent a lot of time at the beginning on Facebook, but if you’ve been on the ad platform, it’s unbelievably complex and it’s changing every day.
Instead of me trying to learn that, I wanted to find someone who was an expert on that and who wants to take it over for us. We’ve found that guy, and the same goes for Google. We have a Google account manager who does all our AdWords, but if you ask him about Facebook, he won’t know anything. I think it’s important not to try and do everything yourself.
We’re testing every platform and at the end of the year we want to really compile a lot of the data and see what’s really working. Where are we spending the right amount of money? What are our conversion rates? How much are we spending per acquisition?
At the end of this year, what we really want to see is after a year of constant sales on many different platforms, is what we can optimize and what we can maybe not do. Maybe a year from now, we’ll say Amazon is charging too much but we’re killing it on Shopify so let’s take down Amazon and focus on our Shopify. I don’t think you can learn that until you actually do it.
In terms of the product, we sell metal acupressure products, so they have real metals and they’re very sharp. For example, our ball has real spikes on it, our mat has real metal spikes with copper, zinc, iron, nickel and silver. The other competitors use plastic, so there’s hundreds of these companies that sell plastic mats. So our competitive advantage and the way to differentiate us is definitely the metals.
We also have a really unique team. All of us have an athletic background -- I played hockey my whole life and got a Division 1 scholarship and my co-founder was a Russian Olympian in Cirque du Soleil so we live and breathe health and wellness. I think people buy into it because they see it. We’re not slobs trying to sell them a health and wellness tool, we’re actually living it and we’re speaking the truth.
Honestly, the main thing that investors are kind of impressed about is the fact that we actually have something tangible that we can present to them. We want their investment and we want their support, but we’re doing this no matter what.
Since the beginning, there was a really strong belief in all of us with the Aku team and no one ever thought negatively. We just had a lot of self-belief and stuck with it. We had some dark times when we weren’t selling a lot, but then we also had no overhead.
There’s not much risk involved with what we’re doing, so I think our output is directly attributed to how much we work and if we want to sell more it’s up to us. We don’t have a lot of other things we rely on and we’re pretty lucky with the current COVID situation.
We got lucky in the sense that more and more people are using these take-home modalities without personal trainers or massage therapists. We just kind of took advantage of the opportunities that came with us. We leveraged everything we could to make it work, and it wasn’t easy, but we had a lot of fight that’s for sure.
To get through those dark times, for me, I had an amazing group around me that was really encouraging. When we went through bad times, it wasn’t necessarily things that were in our control or necessarily things that we were doing wrong. It was just the volatility that’s involved in owning a startup business.
It was never a moment where we’re like Oh we’re fucked, it was just like a big issue we didn’t think was going to happen but it was How can we get past it? I leaned on these investors that are very experienced for help when I needed it. I was very fortunate to get that support, but we were also willing to ask for it as well.
It was a pretty big one with one of our shareholders. It was a big personal stress and financial stress. Without naming, to protect the people involved, we had one guy who wrote us a check for seventy-five thousand dollars. He was someone I knew my whole life and I trusted a lot. It was essentially a handshake deal and so he gave us a check.
The next day, I spent sixty grand on a purchase order to fund our next order, so the money was gone already. He found out about the Dragons Den deal and wasn’t happy because he wanted to do the deal with Arlene. He said to me “Why are you doing the deal with Arlene? I was first, I'll just give you the check right now for the hundred and fifty grand.” I responded that I wanted them both on the team and I think Arlene is an amazing asset who can help us grow the business. From there it just got really really hostile.
Essentially, he came back to me the next week and said he wanted his money back by the end of next month and if we didn’t he would sue us and shut down the business. We had zero dollars in the account and it was my fault because it was a handshake deal.
The guy tried to to completely fuck me quite frankly and ther were three months where the business was in shambles. Instead of spending my time trying to grow the business, I was trying to scramble to come up with this money.
I thought I could fight this in court but I didn’t want to. Technically I didn’t owe him money but we did a handshake deal and the handshake deal could probably hold up in court. So I had to go to other investors and explain the situation. Luckily, the other investors were very good people and they said “I don’t care. I’ll just get him out”. We had the other investors write me a check for seventy-five grand and ended up getting his initial investment out, and I wound up doing the deal with Arlene.
So there were two months where we had literally zero cash and it was really frustrating because it was my fault. I felt responsible for it. The most frustrating part was we were actually killing it sales wise and our business was absolutely growing. We just went on the Dragon’s Den and killed it.
I knew we were about to explode when the episode aired. It was just like, well we might run out of money here even though we’re crushing it. We almost went out of business for something that was my fault. It was something that was completely unexpected and not necessary at all.
I’ll never take another check again in my life unless it is legally binding and perfectly done from a compliance standpoint. Don’t ever take a handshake deal, even if it’s your best friend. It’s just not worth it. If you’re going to do an equity deal with anyone, just do it clean from the beginning so there’s no conversation about it down the road. If you grow big and the money starts getting big, people change.
You don’t ever want to ruin a relationship with a buddy or someone because of a disagreement. If I ever start a business again, the first thing I’ll do is hire a lawyer. That was something I waited a year to do and I learned the hard way. But, it was a great lesson.
I’m definitely proud of the business. Not to toot our own horn but I think our business is a success. It’s been a great success so far, but we’re still hungry for a lot more. At the end of the day, I want to make my shareholders cash. I want to make everyone who’s invested their money in me their money back.
The only way to do that is through an IPO or acquisition and I don’t think this is an IPO play. If we had a long term goal, it would be an acquisition. So I’m working towards that every day and that’s something I’m not rushing to do.
Let’s say theoretically, someone came today and gave me an offer I thought was fair and everyone agreed with, then we would take it. I’m not tied to this for the rest of my life. I love it and I’m proud of it, but if we have an opportunity to exit and everyone makes money, then that will be a big success for me.
Refersion - It’s an affiliate marketing software, and essentially it allows us to sign up affiliates through this company and then they get a unique backlink. So say you’re an influencer for us and you have your own backlink. When your friends use that link to buy, you get paid out in real time through Reversion which is connected to your PayPal. It’s pretty basic software, but it’s something we’ve been using for our affiliates in the last couple of months. It’s been really solid for us. We’re looking to network as much as possible.
Twitch - Twitch is already a monstrous company but it’s still not talked about form an advertising standpoint, especially in the health and wellness space. We’re working with a lot of video game players and trying to do some interesting advertising on Twitch and I think we might be a little early on that.
Facebook / Google / Instagram - Everyone advertises on Google and Facebook, and I think you still have to do that. I would say if you’re going to, make sure you hire an absolute professional unless you are already that guy. Don’t try to learn it, you’ll spend too much time and it's too frustrating, just outsource it.
Touch of Modern & The Grommet - These are wholesalers that can also sell our product. One thing I’ve learned from this business is there’s a lot of other companies that sell goods online that aren’t Amazon shopped, and some of the big ones are a Touch of Modern and The Grommet. For us, if the price is right, there’’s no listing we won’t take. If someone wants to buy our product and the margins make sense, we’re not saying no to that. I think the more eyes you have on your product the better.
Amazon & Shopify - This is where almost all of our sales come through. We’re not tied to one platform, even if someone wanted to buy us at a store we would say yes. When we get to a point of scale, we will have to decide where to turn our focus, but we’re in a growth phase. I’m more focused on getting eyes on our product and getting people to buy. Then as we grow, that’s where I'll start to trim the fat a little more and start worrying more about our margins and how we can really start cash flow.
So essentially we have four different products and they’re all called acupressure products. Acupressure is very similar to acupuncture, but it doesn’t actually puncture the skin. So we use spikes and they’re very sharp but won’t puncture the skin. The theory is, when you have these reflex points triggered, it induces circulation and blood flow creating a warming effect. Which is really good for tense muscle. Each product is designed for different parts of the body. Our Aku mat is great for the feet or the back, where our ball is more for the hands. We have acupressure rings we just started selling as well. Every product is called acupressure, but each is different depending on how you use them for the body.
The 4 Hour Work Week - I love Tim Ferriss. I don’t think I would have started this business if his book didn’t exist. It’s just something I think every entrepreneur should read. I think his podcast is better than his books. I’ve listened to every one of his podcasts and the combined knowledge of his podcasts has been very important with my business.
Gary Vee - He had a quote that I attribute a lot of the catalysts of the launch where he said “Don’t tell me your idea, sell me your product”. I think it’s such a good quote because I would go to people and I wouldn’t tell them about the acupressure company I was trying to start, I would just show them the mat and tell them to try it. It’s not about the brand, it’s not about the company, it’s Do you like this product? It was such a powerful quote for me and I still think about that. It was one of those moments that made you think - Don’t overthink this, just get the mats and see if you can sell them. Nothing else matters. Who cares what they look like or the price? Just see if people will buy them from you. That’s just so much more empowering. At the end of the day, they just want to see what you can offer them and how it can benefit them. Your business doesn’t matter, it’s how the product works for the consumer.
I looked at the Toolsy books, and I’ve read almost every book you have on there. I love them all. I just ordered the Third Door after I saw it on your site and now it’s one I really want to read. When you see these New York Times best selling books, the ones everyone’s talking about, they get a little repetitive but they’re probably worth reading and you’re not going to regret it. They’re like mandatory reading that any entrepreneur should read. I can’t stress that enough.
It varies depending on what industry you’re in.It’s hard to pin down specific resources but The Founder podcast and How I Built This and Ferriss’s podcast are incredible. Naval Ravikant is a guy I really admire and follow and he has a tweet storm called How to Get Rich Without Getting Lucky. It’s about 3 hours long of just snippets of wisdom. He says he uses a clickbait title just to get people to listen, but it’s unbelievable. I probably listened to his podcast six times on repeat. I recommend it to anyone for business and personal life.
Personally I’m just kind of always trying to take care of my personal health and myself first. Whether it’s reading, staying active or staying fit. If I’m not doing that stuff offline, then I’m never going to perform with my business. I see a direct correlation to if I’m reading a lot, or listening to a lot of podcasts then it’s tangible that I’m doing better in business. Whenever I’m reading, I’m selling more and whenever I’m not learning that’s when I’m in kind of a rut. You just have to constantly stay on top of stuff and don’t try to force it. If it’s not interesting to you, don’t consume it and move on to the next. There’s so much out there that you don’t need to spend time reading stuff you don't actually like.
For the business, I think we’re just iterating constantly and we’re learning so much. Before I knew nothing about Facebook and Amazon, but now I know a lot because we’ve done it for the last two years. Every week we’re just seeing new things, Oh this worked on our site, here’s a new thing we added, here’s a new kind of way we can sell. The thing about e-commerce is that stuff’s always changing too. Amazon and Shopify are always coming out with new apps that you can use to optimize your page. I think if you’re in it, just stay on top of it and you’re going to learn a lot. If you’re on the sidelines waiting for the next big thing, you’re not going to learn anything.
Just take it easy on yourself and stick with it because it can take a long time. It’s a lot more fulfilling doing this than any kind of desk job you could ever have.
If AkuSpike failed tomorrow and we went out of business it would still be the best decision I ever made in my life. I’m so very proud of it and I’m going to keep grinding it and fighting it. Just being in it is so enjoyable. We wake up in the morning and we’re already selling stuff before I wake up, and it’s just like I don’t even do anything. We have this automated system , but it’s because we work towards it and it’s beautiful to see once you’re in it. If you believe in it, stick with it and try to figure it out.
There's no answer, no cheat code. Every business is different and you’re going to come into a ton of problems. But If you actually believe in it, the problems don’t really matter in the end. Honestly it’s just fun. I don’t feel like I ever really work.