eCommerce Rockstars – EP 8 – Van Oakes – Diesel Brothers

Van Oakes a member of a supergroup of brands like Diesel Sellerz, Diesel Power Gear and several other branded ventures catering to the niche of Diesel truck owners. Probably their best-known brand is a massively popular show on Discovery Channel where two of the founding brothers talk about all things diesel trucks.

Long before the show, the team were able to grow a pretty substantial YouTube following based on their industry knowledge and awesome content.  Van was then brought on board so that they could start to monetize this following, and also spread it across other channels like Instagram, Facebook and more.  The genesis of this operation was with a contest where they gave away a pretty amazing truck that the guys had built.

The initial contest was for every branded wristband that they sold, the customer was entered into a draw for the truck. This was such a success that the demand for more contests grew quickly, and their customers gave them the feedback that they would love to have a t-shirt or a hat instead. This was the birth of the eCommerce side of the business, and since then has spread into Tires, auto parts and more, a collective that is on track to break $30M this year in sales.

In the midst of this explosive growth, the Discovery Channel reached out about profiling the journey of the group in a show. The show has quite obviously provided many benefits to the eCommerce business in terms of exposure and building the personal brands of the hosts to a significant position of influence.

For those of who have tried running giveaways and contests for your eCommerce business before, you will be familiar with the reality that if not done properly, you end up with a lot of leads on your email address that are not really that of your ideal customer profile…they just want some free shit.  

A key differentiating factor in the massive success of the Diesel Sellerz competitions is that they sell entry to the contest based on the products being purchased. This comes with additional compliance requirements that must be met, but is a great way to attract the right kind of people to your business, make some cash from them up front, and start to build relationships with them instantly with a branded product.

The prizes must be something that are very unique and high value, and ideally not available anywhere else. The items that people are buying to enter should also be high quality, higher margin, and something that people will actually love. As a bonus, if the entries are for apparel purchases then people will be walking around advertising your brand!

An indication of how strong the Diesel Sellerz brand is, and how well they do with their experience, is their repeat purchase rate of 56%, which is pretty astronomically high for an eCommerce business.  They are very big on building community with their social media accounts, email lists, and facebook groups. Because of this commitment to building a community beyond the sale they are the most influential company and group in their market.

Long before the TV show elevated the team to stardom, the company was based on making really great and engaging content for a very specific and highly engaged group of people. Van maintains that this is still the driving factor behind their success. As Seth Godin puts it, their “Minimum Viable Audience” is a group of people very devoted to diesel trucks as a lifestyle, so their commitment to giving these folks something to watch, engage with and feel a part of is what has driven their brand to tremendous heights…not just TV viewers at all! The TV show actually came 4 years in, and doesn’t spike sales nearly as much as one would think beyond building the personal brands of the founders.

As great as giveaways and contests can be, there are also a LOT of them online right now, making it harder for the credible and real ones to stand out. At the end of the day, people aren’t stupid and know that you’re giving something away for something in return, even if that’s just for an email address. Van suggests that the best way to add credibility and fire to your giveaway is by using influencers that are popular with your audience.

In addition to their 56% customer repeat business rate is their average lifetime value numbers at above $150. This means that because they have such a great customer experience, the amount the can afford to invest in an acquisition is incredibly high.  This is just another testament to how many opportunities you can unlock for your business when you focus on great customer experience.

To get started in building the first competition you don’t need to have a $100k truck. Van is a big advocate of building a handsome margin into your product so that you can build an acquisition cost to get folks in the door. You then can find something really unique that your audience will be really excited about like an experience, or something very unique you can source at cost as a part of a collaborative marketing effort.

Something that has produced a lot of amazing results in the customer experience area of their business has been handwritten notes, postcards that introduce the founders with a message on it, and then attention to the unboxing experience. Branded mailers and packaging can go a long way in improving the customer experience. Since they do their own fulfillment, they have the person who packages the product finish off the handwritten note and postcard so that it can scale.

With some of the products taking up to 10 days to get to their customers, they put a lot of attention into the post-purchase emails and communications that are very upfront about the delivery window and why it is like it is. They are transparent about that they are a growing company but still small and run by friends, so this is why it might take a while to get there. The first email is the most important for them, thanking the customer deeply and explaining why their purchase means so much to the founders.

One of their more recent giveaways was for $100,000 in cash, which they had never done before and wanted to try out as a prize. Check out the video in this link here, and have a tissue ready, because it made me cry! This guy happened to be in the hospital while he received the call being treated for Cancer. He could have not have needed this cash anymore, and this was one of the proudest moments in the company when they were able to connect this man with this prize.

Ironically the giveaway wasn’t as successful because people value the trucks built by the boys more than the value cash to buy their own truck. However, the result in giving that prize to someone who truly needed it was an incredible boost in the internal commitment to the mission of the business and a solid reinforcement of their vision and the validation of the impact they make in their community.

Meeting that winner was an incredible experience for the team and an amazing connection with the end consumer. As an eCommerce store owner, sometimes your customers just look like numbers inside of your ads account or your payment processor rather than actual people that you can really help, or really provide an amazing experience with just with your product alone.

We have incredible opportunities in eCommerce to impact the world in so many ways, from the products we sell that make people’s lives better, to the content that we put out there which can make people learn something or laugh or think differently. Connecting with this power and seeing these effects can really strengthen your vision for the business and bring awareness to how truly incredible it is to be an entrepreneur.

Van has a wonderful family life aside from being a part of a high-flying and super busy ecommerce life, and so I wanted to ask him how he’s able to preserve the prior and not get sucked into working too much (as I think we can all be guilty of).

A big key to his balance in work and family life is to simply shut his phone right off as soon as he gets home. He believes in hitting the office hard to focus on the tasks at hand, but when he gets home he is devoted to his family. This allows him to have solid family time every day so that he isn’t just waiting for a future date when he might “have more time” to do that.  Having some definitive time away from work is incredibly healthy in a lot of ways, particularly when you have an awesome family you want to be present for, and kids to watch grow up.

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