In this interview series, we are talking to founders, CEOs, and ecommerce business leaders about how to use social media to grow your ecommerce business. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Smallwood.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The short answer: I was a kid getting out of business school, living in a post-2008 world with rapidly emerging and evolving social media platforms, looking for a business to put online.
The longer answer is that I graduated from business school just as social media was beginning to be used as a tool by individuals in business. Getting in front of groups of people online—anywhere—seemed to be easier than a traditional sales path. But what I had just learned in school didn’t integrate anything digital. Turns out I was most interested in the part that was left out. Everything seemed to be going digital, yet very few people were putting their businesses online.
Essentially, we started Smallwoods by finding a quality product, handcrafting said product, then selling it online. We launched our online business at just the right time from a very rural East Texas town.
Can you share the most exciting story that has happened to you since you began at your company?
The whole thing has been a ride, but undoubtedly one point that shaped how I see the world around me was this one major event where we almost lost everything. Smallwoods had grown rapidly and substantially. Momentum was on our side, and we had a solid team crafting a well-made product that was in high demand. Just as we were getting comfortable with our new normal, we lost everything we owned one night in a warehouse fire.
That forged a deep relationship with our local community because of how they supported us in rebuilding. It was then that we had a revelation. When every material thing was stripped away, and all you had left was your people, you had what was most valuable. It became clear that the best life is, in fact, a shared life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?
One year there was a particular linen tufted chair my wife Holly loved, and we wanted to sell it online. But it was expensive. After some research, I discovered that I could go directly to the manufacturer overseas and procure the chair for a fraction of the cost. It was fundamentally a different play in the ecommerce world at that time—going directly to a source.
In my vertical, people were going to wholesale domestically. It was also abnormal for companies of our size at that time to deal in volume like that. Thinking I had it all figured out, I bought a full container of these chairs, 250 in total. But I had overlooked a major calculation. These chairs were way too bulky to sell online. During all my planning and researching, I didn’t know how big of a difference that would make.
Over the years, these chairs have found their forever homes in rooms and offices across our company today and even in some of our photos online, keeping us humble.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
A lifelong project that I’m knee-deep in right now is what we call The Pines. It’s 240 acres of densely populated pine forest with rolling hills, large winding creeks, fishing ponds, and miles of walking trails where we host our community for live events featuring free live music, games for kids and adults, a large variety of gourmet food options from our farm, featured artists and artisans from all around, and shopping.
When we're not hosting the community, this is where we operate a farm, garden, nursery, and headquarter of our operations and design studio.
The ecommerce success has been a huge blessing to us, and it has allowed us to move on to projects like The Pines, which help our entire community of East Texas. It is a project that our team of 400+ employees is working on together. We’re a group of different types of people interested in different types of things, which have been given a blank canvas opportunity. We respect each other and our individual skill sets, appreciating the individual and not getting in each other’s way.
We’re excited about what’s next, and we encourage everyone to follow our journey at smallwoodhome.com.
What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success?
“Learn. Practice. Share.” It’s our ethos. We are constantly learning something, which then shifts to constantly practicing something, then constantly sharing something. Something for the greater good. We have this mantra that everyone takes out the trash. We’re all in it together, figuring it out together, then sharing it.
Our “learn, practice, share” ethos has been evident as we’ve essentially taught ourselves the art of filmmaking. We practiced, failed, refined, and then molded it into what it is today. As storytellers, we push ourselves daily to evolve not only how we do life but how we communicate to the world what we’ve learned. Now we share the craft we’ve learned throughout our company and the world.
What was your original vision for your ecommerce business? What pain point(s) were you trying to solve for your customers?
We knew that if we could get vertically integrated, then we could drive costs down and make it more affordable for our customers. In addition to affordability, we knew we wanted the customer’s experience to be easy, fast, and fun.
Our product originated in wood framed word art, then we saw the opportunity to scale and add in custom prints. All while keeping the experience easy. How can we help people simply and quickly get their photos off their phones and into their homes? It makes their lives easier, and we’re happy to be entrusted with the task of printing their memories and milestones.
How did social media help you grow your business? What were your strategic objectives, and how did you implement your social media plan?
Cliché technical social media terms are all helpful to some extent, but the fundamental thing to know in the ecommerce space is that we are handed a megaphone through which we can blast any message. We look at the sequential steps that someone might take to get to know us. How can I first get them interested in what I’m doing? Then how do I get them to come to the site and be interested in purchasing something? Then coming back to purchase again and give a review?
The unique, direct, and instant reactions and communication from our customers through social media help measure metrics so that we constantly evolve the business.
Which social media platforms have you found most beneficial for ecommerce specifically?
Meta is best for a cold prospecting tool, but the most efficient solution is a three-way combination of a strong push platform, a strong social platform, and a strong search platform. Whatever social platform you’re on now, have a comprehensive strategy for it but also know it’s becoming outdated. Be looking for and towards the next one.
What social commerce trends are you most closely paying attention to, and how are you preparing to leverage them for growth?
By far, the most obvious is getting away from traditional legacy branded techniques that create faceless brands or icons. Become more relatable, and don’t just have such a sponsored, polished feel when it’s consumed. You don’t want people’s first impression to be that you are a Google-sponsored search or just a car commercial.
Sometimes the production quality is so high that it is immediately perceived as an ad, and it’s quickly skipped over. Our UGC (user-generated content) thrives well. If people can see a relatable display of our product, they are more apt to see the need of adding our product to their homes or life.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen when companies try to use social media to promote ecommerce? What can be done to avoid those mistakes?
As noted above, many companies have become too polished and too generic, and their content comes across as a highly produced ad rather than something authentic and relatable. Companies should always make sure they are developing a strong brand that is approachable and relatable to consumers.
Based on your experience and success, what are your top 5 ways to use social media to grow your ecommerce business?"
What social media needs is what we think every storyteller needs—a system that creates an authentic, captivating story that you can somehow turn into media production at the same time you’re creating the real-world production of your business.
- Story development: Make concept and story development a priority. Don’t skip over this part. It will prevent massive amounts of confusion down the road if you can lay a good foundation of what you are wanting to communicate.
- Pre-production: Don’t be someone that just comes in with a half-baked idea and shoots from the hip. Once you get the concept fully developed, make sure you know what is driving the bus and what steps need to be taken to get a concept across the finish line. Set clear targets that you are going to be able to measure.
- Production: Get to executing.
- Post-production: Even though you are aimed at trying to predict your future as much as possible in pre-production, post-production is where you realize that you can never fully predict your future. You need to be able to pick up the pieces and execute with what you have.
- Distribution/analytics: What you lost in between pre-production and post will then shape your analysis. This is where you tie back into concept and story development and critically assess your execution. All the while trying to constantly get better.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be?
It would be exactly what I’m doing with The Pines right now. That is my life’s work.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Come follow the new things we have brewing at smallwoodhome.com.
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