233: How a Bootstrapped Ecommerce Company Took on Amazon, With Steve Traurig of Booktopia

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Steve was a guest of StartCon, Australia’s largest startup and growth conference. It was held over two days at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

One For The Books The story of Booktopia, ‘Australia’s favorite bookstore,’ and how they’re conquering the competition—even Amazon.

Once upon a time, a programmer who got his start with IBM was given an enchanted opportunity to create a magical bookstore that would one day battle powerful giants. The magical power? With just a click of a button, Australians could have brand new books delivered within days to their doorsteps.

And just like in most fairy tales, our hero and his friends stumbled upon the opportunity entirely by accident. “We literally fell into it,” says Steve Traurig.

Traurig and his two brothers-in-law, Tony and Simon Nash, were running an online marketing consulting business when Angus & Robertson, the 130-year-old Australian bookseller, approached them and asked if they would be interested in getting into the book business. The pitch was a white label book retail website, meaning that everything from the website creation to the distribution would be handled by Angus & Robertson. All Traurig and company had to do was add their personal flair.

But Booktopia, the company that arose from that project, would end up becoming something much bigger. Nearly 15 years after Traurig’s brother-in-law said he “wouldn’t mind giving that book thing a bit of a go,” Booktopia has served over 4.2 million Australians and is on track to bring in $115 million this year, making it the market leader in online book sales. Oh, and they now own Angus & Robertson.

The journey from their very first book sale to squaring off against Amazon for online book supremacy in Australia was a chess game of strategic move after strategic move. Thanks to some shrewd decisions, including focusing on customer interaction and building their own ecommerce and fulfillment systems, Booktopia’s well on its way to happily ever after.

A White Label Bookshop, Transformed

In 2004, with only $10 a day to put toward advertising their new business, Traurig and the Nash brothers dove headfirst into the book world.

“When we first started, we owned nothing,” Traurig says.

When Booktopia first launched, Angus & Robertson created their website, managed their distribution and owned the brand. Traurig and his brothers-in-law were responsible only for marketing, so they created a few Google AdWords campaigns (one of which is still running today) and waited for their first books to sell. By the end of the first year, they were doing $100,000 in business a month.

This worked beautifully for the trio and for Booktopia for three years, but in 2007, they had to confront the reality that what they were building, with revenue ever increasing, could all go away in an instant. They also realized that the fulfillment company was neither able to keep up with the growth they were experiencing, nor were they able to meet the expectations Traurig held.

“We decided we had to go out on our own, because we were actually building a company of value,” he says, “and we realized that if you want to have something of value, you have to do it yourself.”

Things were going well, and they realized that in the current setup, they didn’t really own anything of substance, should they ever want to sell.

So they broke away from the fulfillment company and set out to turn Booktopia into something of their own. They set up their first warehouse, hired a warehouse manager, bought some shelves off eBay, and got to work building their own core systems.

“Dealing with those sorts of numbers in databases, in the website, in the front end, in the backend, etc., the scale is beyond almost any other retail environment, and we had to make it all work,” he says. “We built the systems ourselves and that takes particular commitment and skill.”

With all of the changes taking place, it would have been reasonable to see a marked customer drop off. Before the transfer, they did about 130 orders a day, but that number only dropped to about 110 a day, even after everything from their systems to their website changed.

Through it all, the Booktopia customers remained loyal. In fact, the focus Booktopia places on the customer experience would come to define their brand.

“It’s about the customer obsession,” Traurig says. “About putting yourself in the place of the customer.”

When Traurig and his brothers took on the fulfillment side of the business, they began with only a single book on their physical shelves, but knew that building up their stock was the only way to give their customers the best experience.

Instead of the long wait from the moment an order was placed until a supplier could deliver the order and then ship it off, all they had to do once they built up stock was grab an item from the shelf the moment the order came in and send it along.

“That was essentially a business-changing experience, because the feedback we got from the customer was instantaneous,” he says.

Customers responded with glee that their books arrived so quickly, inspiring them to remain loyal and recommend the bookseller to friends. Because of this organic growth, Booktopia has never needed to take on investors.

Even without investors, they have consistently outmatched the competition and met their sales goals. In fact, they made the BRW Fast 100, Financial Review’s list of the fastest growing Australian brands, seven times between 2009 and 2016, the only company to do so.

Traurig says that they have also built strong relationships with their banks, something he describes as a critical part of doing business. This gives them additional wiggle room if necessary, staving off a need for traditional investors.

“A lot of startups, a lot of founders, think they immediately need to go out and grab someone else’s money and give away bits of the company,” he says. “There’s definitely merit in doing that for certain types of models. We chose to actually build a solid business organically and build it off the back of our customers and customer service.”

And this approach has carried them through what could have been a business-ending battle.

Squaring Off Against a Giant

When Amazon announced that it would be launching in full in Australia at the end of 2017, Traurig wasn’t nervous. The institutions they worked with, however, had concerns.

The gargantuan online retailer had generated $136 billion in revenue the year before, with all signs pointing to continued growth. So how was “Australia’s local bookstore” going to keep up?

Well, according to Traurig, they had been keeping an eye on the behemoth from the very beginning and hadn’t let its success deter them.

“From our point of view, when we started Booktopia, Amazon was shipping $100 million worth of books into Australia already, and we didn’t worry about that,” he says. “We were fearless.”

They focused instead on their own business, and the most important asset: the customers.

Due to its global nature and size, Amazon has an impersonal quality to it that Traurig says Booktopia always vowed to counter. For example, Booktopia’s website has the office’s physical address, email, and phone number on every single page, not only allowing but encouraging customers to reach out and share praise, complaints, and questions instantaneously. They wanted to be accessible and feel like a part of the community.

To keep up with the emails and phone calls, they quickly hired their first customer service staff, a cheerful individual who still answers the questions of Booktopia customers today.

Traurig says they take customer feedback extremely seriously and use it to inform their continued development. With a 20-person development team on the case, he says that Booktopia is always in pursuit of the best possible user experience, a quest that can only be completed through regular, honest feedback.

Traurig says that this approach to customer service has been the key to keeping up with the competition.

“All throughout our history, Amazon has been this massive company…but we were just focused on getting product to our customers.”

And if winning 2016’s National Book Retailer of the Year and 2017’s National Bookstore of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards is any indication, Booktopia’s approach is working.

The Next Page

Today, Booktopia has over 6 million products available on their website with over 150,000 of those titles in stock in a 140,000 square-foot distribution center. They also acquired Angus & Robertson, along with its online store Bookworld, in 2015.

“It’s a 130-year-old company that had a very, very good chance of disappearing completely,” Traurig says. “So for us, it was also an honor.” The company currently runs as its own business unit with independent marketing, branding and customer base.

The founders also have high hopes for the company’s automated systems and distribution center. To demonstrate their capabilities, Booktopia acquired an online camera and optics company. In doing so, Traurig and his partners are hoping to show that their systems can handle more than a single type of product.

So what’s next for Australia’s favorite bookstore?

Although they ventured down the path of going public in 2016, they pulled the IPO just before launch, choosing to remain a private company. With Amazon looming, and after watching several other online companies attempt to go public and fail spectacularly, they decided to keep things as they were.

While Traurig has a “never say never” mindset toward another try at going public, there are no plans to move in that direction for now.

“Our customers have been our investors,” Traurig says. “What we’ve always chosen to do is delight the customer.”

And in true fairytale fashion, delight them they will.

Steve Traurig’s Tips on Building a Sellable Company

While founders are still scaling the challenging mountains that come with launching a business, it might seem silly to think 500 steps ahead to the day they will be shaking hands on the sale of the company. But Steve Traurig believes building a company that will someday attract a buyer starts on day one, so he offered three tips to creating a company that will sell.

  1. Make Sure Your Bookkeeping is Impeccable

“One of the things we’ve always done is make sure that our financials, our financial reporting and our accounting are top notch,” he says. As you might expect, well-kept books have always been a priority at Booktopia. From the very beginning, they sought financial advice when necessary and kept all of their books in perfect order. And because neither he nor his other co-founders had strength in bookkeeping, they always made it a number one priority to hire someone skilled.

“It may just all look like a whole bunch of receipts and a pain the neck…but aim to set up solid financial management right at the beginning.”

  1. Create as Many Original Things as You Can

In the beginning, Booktopia was a white label website, but when it started to flourish, Traurig and his partners realized they needed to make some changes. “If we wanted to sell it,” he says, “we had nothing to sell,” Traurig says. So they decided to build all of their own core systems to create something that would be attractive to eventual buyers. Traurig encourages founders to use as many original systems as possible and innovate wherever feasible. In doing so, the value of the company you may someday look to sell increases significantly.

  1. Demonstrate What You’ve Built

Now that you’ve created something original, it’s time to show what it can do! Perfect its intended capabilities and then push its limits. This is what Traurig says they are currently doing at Booktopia with their distribution systems. Because they created the automation used in the center, they decided to demonstrate to potential buyers that it could handle more than one product at a time, leading them to purchase a camera company. The only thing better than an innovative creation is one that can be used in more than one way. Traurig says that demonstrating this is a great way to build a sellable company.

Key Takeaways
  • How this self-professed tech guy “fell into” starting an online bookstore that rivals Amazon
  • How Booktopia has remained fully self-funded for 15 years
  • Why they pulled an IPO just before it went live
  • How he felt about Amazon coming to Australia
  • For bootstrapped businesses, how to know when it’s time to build your own internal tools and handle shipping and fulfillment yourself
  • The reasons behind the acquisitions Booktopia has made, particularly Angus & Robertson
  • How Booktopia approaches Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

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