Today we dove head first into an incredible brand story with Pela Case, who created an incredibly innovative material to create the world’s first biodegradable and compostable phone cases can be manufactured. Matthew Bertulli brings over 15 years of experience in eCommerce and over a billion dollars in prior sales to the table for this business and teamed up with an incredibly passionate and science-driven Founder Jeremy Lang.
The idea was spurred when Jeremy was on vacation with his family, and his daughter was digging up what seemed like endless amounts of plastic on a beautiful beach in Maui. This sent him on a journey to create the material behind the product, and when Matthew and Jeremy first met at a mastermind, the duo clicked, and they started testing out markets for who would buy this kind of product. After experimentation, they found a niche (the zero waste community and zero waste movements) and the business absolutely exploded into multiple 8-figures.
From there Matthew found an influencer in the space (who were all micro-influencer sized personalities and pages) and recruited them all with attractive offers to promote an incredibly novel idea and product.
The product is really at the center of the Pela Case success with it being so high-quality and truly unique. As Matthew said, it wasn’t like they were selling a mediocre phone case with a cool story, it was a fantastic phone case with an incredible story. This combination made for a home run and has allowed the company to double in sales every 60-90 days, which as an 8-figure business, this represents some massive growth.
Matthew isn’t shy to admit how tough of a road managing this kind of growth has been. As many ecommerce entrepreneurs reaching this level of success will tell you, there are a variety of problems that you just don’t even think about that you will encounter along your journey, particularly when working with unique and specialized products and supply chains.
Pela’s mission is to keep 1 billion pounds of plastic being made every year and to accomplish this big mission the team needed to build a rock-solid brand. As Matthew reminds us, anyone can start a phone case company with Alibaba, but these companies never become anything of value. If you really want to build something more sustainable, and in the end, far more profitable, you have to build a brand and go through all the growing pains of scaling it.
“Everything other than the Facebook ad is what goes into building a great brand”
The novel idea behind the Pela business is that the environmental impact is with the product itself as the spearhead. What this means is that it is not simply a buy-one-give-one sort of business model to create social impact, the product itself when purchased is what is creating the impact and that makes for a rock-solid brand story.
In order to create a unique product with this much impact, the team has had to do a lot of experimenting with manufacturing and a lot of research into the materials. This hasn’t been cheap but has returned the investment back to the team in vast multiples. It’s important to note that founders’ passion kept driving the business forward pre-revenue, and that is what drives the majority of innovation and purpose-driven brands to push through to uniqueness and past just the profit mentality.
The Scaling of sales is a very different set of issues than the creation of the product. The conversation switched from batch production and testing and selling a few units per day, to mass manufacturing and selling several thousand units per day.
Matthew and Jeremy look at Patagonia as a gold standard of companies that are legitimately trying their best to bring about change in the world with their business practices and have really blazed the trail for the sustainability movement today.
They also look at them as a great example of what kind of success is available when you focus on a narrow niche and go super deep with it. The alternative is these brands that try and go too wide with products all united under a “greenwashed” generic brand promise that in the end has no substance because it gets watered down.
In order to build a truly valuable company, you have to take a long way and build a brand that cares about its customers, that has incredible products and that ties it all together under a brand that really cares and really communicates the brand message cohesively. This is all magnified by the massive trends in a society where people WANT to get behind brands that have a social impact, and investors are now seeing the value in these socially conscious enterprises and moving away from brands that ignore this.
Pela has been able to take a really un-sexy product and industry, and bring life into it with the first real innovation in a long time. In phone cases, you see people running ads where people are running phones over with cars, etc. All the competition has been selling is features, whereas Pela has built a brand on the story and the benefits of that story. Sure the case is great, but people buy it for what it stands for, and the story that it allows them to tell their friends.
People don’t want to talk about products, they want to talk about things that REALLY matter to them. When you align your brand with the things that really matter to people, and send them out content about this shared experience and interests they are having then you create opportunities to interact with them in meaningful ways, and that is a major distinguishing factor of a brand vs. product pushing company. This transforms your products into storytelling pieces, conversation starters, and badges for how much they care.
In alignment with this principle is the content strategy that they follow in email marketing, sending out their “Sustainability Saturday” list of 5 important things happening in sustainability. Their customer can then take those things and discuss them with their networks, and these emails are not sales based, but end up selling a LOT of product for Pela indirectly, and built a lot of brand equity.
“The two most important people are who you marry and who you get into business with,” Matthew said on his strong union with his partner Jeremy. What was really paramount to their success in this business has been their skill sets are complementary and not competitive. Having been in multiple ventures before this one, Matthew learned that having a strong complementary relationship is really key to moving mountains together.
The two even brought on a third partner in the area of manufacturing and supply chain, knowing that they could really scale the business in a far superior way if that level of expertise was brought to the table. This also keeps Matthew focused on scaling sales, Jeremy focused on the creative inputs and innovation, and their new partner Brad executing like a beast in operations.
Matthew also knows that although he could keep his team even leaner, you need a good team of people to build a meaningful brand with the great customer experience and solid relationships with your brand at all levels. Good people are what allow you to have a lot of impact and reach true scale in the marketplace.
He is also not big on the top-line revenue fetish, realizing that unless you are building a real brand with long term value with healthy profit margins, you are really just pursuing vanity and a lot of insanity in the process.
Matthew resonated highly with Sam Altman’s How to Be Successful Article for a number of reasons. Having exited a company before, he has built himself a safety net. In this way, he is never really acting out of desperation or scarcity and is still highly motivated but by the creation of value and fulfillment – which is now fueling even greater profits. Taking risks is important, but risking everything on every bet is just stupid.
He isn’t saying don’t go for it and follow your dreams, but he wouldn’t be able to swing for it so hard as he is with this company if he didn’t start out by hitting some doubles and singles and getting the experience and financing that he needed.
He also wishes he had someone mentoring him a lot early to tell him that he shouldn’t be working so hard on is business. He neglected his health for many years which ironically held him back from being a better performing entrepreneur. Being healthy and happy is important to success in business because this is a marathon and not a sprint.
Scale and true growth comes from the team, from proper systems and really understand how to build a business, but none of it is possible without having good physical, mental and emotional health!
01:00 – The Pela Cast story
04:43 – Having a great quality product as a driving force
05:36 – Scaling your problems with your business
07:50 – Making the leap to proprietary and unique products
10:40 – How to build a TRULY valuable company
13:40 – Making a boring niche sexy with story
16:40 – Storytelling in email marketing – selling without selling
18:00 – Finding a CoFounder relationship that works
21:20 – Scaling a team is a key to happiness and progress
23:40 – Enjoying life while building a massive business