Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi Guys! My name is Mark Mesrobian, and I’m the Executive Vice President of Complete Sourcing Solutions (CSS), a 20-year-old “start-up”. I became a serial entrepreneur after being fired from a corporate job over twenty years ago. Turns out it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
As the name suggests, CSS started by importing products from Asia for other companies. We’ve been involved in jewelry, home goods, and cut-and-sew before specializing in electronics.
Our B2B site sells to retailers like Nordstrom, Dillards, Lord & Taylor, Best Buy, CVS, and others, but our real passion is our B2C business.
About 10 years ago, we started creating our own brands. Our flagship is Fifth & Ninth, a direct to consumer mobile and lifestyle accessory site. The name is a nod to Fifth Avenue and Ninth Avenue, the unofficial boundaries to the Fashion District in New York City.
Pre-COVID-19, we were focused on building Fifth & Ninth into a destination for trendy and unique mobile and lifestyle accessories from trendy phone cases to sunglasses to blue light blocking glasses. We invested an enormous amount of money, time, and effort into Influencer marketing, Instagram & Facebook ads, and brand building.
When COVID-19 turned the world upside down, we dialed back our efforts on Fifth & Ninth and took one of our original sites, Symtek, and turned it into a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) destination. We leveraged our long-standing relationships in the US and China to source masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, face shields, wipes, and other protective equipment.
In less than a month and just by word of mouth, we took Symtek from $0 to over $100K!
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, I decided to open up a Subway Sandwich Shop with a friend of mine. Even though my parents thought I was crazy, they supported me and my decision to go into business for myself.
Perfection is a productivity killer, especially with a website.
Subway was a great “experience”, and you know what they say about “experience”. It is what you get when you don’t get what you really want! It was very satisfying to work for myself, but the hours were long and the financial rewards weren’t there.
After making sandwiches for six years, I joined the only tech company in the area as a customer service representative. It was at my new job where I learned about manufacturing, wholesale, and eventually selling to retailers. It was foreign to me to only work 40 hours a week and get paid very well for a “part-time” job.
I lasted about 5 years before I got tired of taking directions from others. By pushing me out the door as part of a “workforce reduction”, they made the decision easy for me to leave and strike out on my own again.
Having been self-employed and to have worked for someone else, I was able to quickly decide that I liked the freedom of being my own boss.
It didn’t take long to get restarted by using the network I established in the last five years. Our first project at CSS was private labeling a universal travel adapter from one of my contacts in Asia for a company that sold to airport shops. They started buying a single item from us, and eventually, the product assortment grew into the hundreds.
I still wasn’t married at the time, so I had been able to save a lot of money while working in corporate America. Even better, the investment to get started was minimal because the customer paid deposits when placing an order then paying the balance prior to us shipping.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
What made us successful as a sourcing company early on was our access to a mature supply chain. By having trusted suppliers already on the ground in China, we had our eyes and ears at the factories.
Our transition from sourcing to brand development happened when the first iPhone was launched. The accessory business for a lot of US-based companies exploded as retailers, who didn’t have relationships with Apple, started looking for cables and chargers.
As the iPhone became more dominant, the demand for accessories kept growing, so we created our first “house” brand, Symtek, to meet that demand.
When Apple launched the lightning tip, we decided to join the Apple-licensed, Made for iPod (MFI) program. By paying the licensing fee to Apple, we were not always competitively priced, but we knew the products worked as advertised.
The challenge was to find suppliers who were able to provide quality products that met Apple’s standards. We also had to submit packaging to Apple for approval. In this way, we did not have to worry about infringing on other patents or trademarks.
The Symtek brand really exploded when multiple SKUs were added to the planogram in all doors at a major drugstore chain in the US.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Fast forward to 2015, when our biggest retail partner asked us to private label our Symtek products for them. The writing was on the wall, and it was only a matter of time before they would begin direct importing themselves.
There is an opportunity in adversity. During the bad times, the competition shrinks, and the cream rise to the top.
Selling commoditized products to a shrinking group of retailers suddenly wasn’t as appealing as it used to be. It had diminishing returns, so we focused less on Symtek and began working on Fifth & Ninth.
By having a steady revenue stream from Symtek, it made the decision to invest in Fifth & Ninth easier.
The goal of Fifth & Ninth was to create a line of accessories that we could sell direct to consumers via our own website using social media and online advertising to create a brand and generate interest.
We had the benefit of long-standing relationships with suppliers in Asia who agreed to support our new venture with smaller sized orders with our own designs and packaging. Normally, factories have sizable MOQs (minimum order quantities) which make it risky to bring in thousands of pieces per SKU.
We were able to tread lightly and test the market without having to tie up cash by committing to large inventory buys. It gave us an advantage.
We would also run tests on our Creative Director Bryce’s Instagram account. She has a good-sized following, and she would A / B test designs in her story. Based on the results, we would prioritize which ones to send to production. Her team would create mood boards then work with our graphics designers to turn the concepts into products.
What we didn’t realize was how hard this was going to be, even with all of our advantages and years of experience!
And as Fifth & Ninth started to gain momentum, the pandemic hit!
Luckily, we were able to pivot quickly as one door was closing. We already had the Symtek site up and online for brand awareness. We never intended it to be used for eCommerce.
As a result, it wasn’t current, and no one was really watching it. It also had a low domain authority and minimal SEO, so it was a pretty easy decision to repurpose it for PPE.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Word of mouth has been the driving force behind the success of Symtek. We’ve had some amazingly high conversion rates averaging over 9.0% since we launched the PPE site.
By getting our friends and family involved, we had a great organic market to tap into. We asked friends and family to share Symtek on Facebook, and I created a few posts on LinkedIn to get the word out.
Neither Facebook nor Instagram allows PPE to be advertised because of the high number of scams, but we were able to overcome the lack of paid advertising with good old fashioned, grassroots efforts.
We then created a PDF “direct to consumer” catalog that I would send to all of our customers as we added new categories like alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, and gowns.
We are now planning to expand into more traditional marketing techniques to grow the business. Email campaigns, SEO, affiliate marketing, retargeting and prospecting when it is finally allowed.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are sourcing our PPE domestically and overseas. Since this market is moving so quickly, we are ok with paying more for products that someone else has paid to fly in. As things settle down, we will adjust our procurement to meet market demands.
We would like to invest in online advertising, but Facebook and Google have frozen those options for the moment. There is a lot of fraud in the PPE market, and too many sellers are taking advantage of consumers.
Unfortunately, we think PPE is going to become a regular part of our lives going forward. We are happy that we could revive our Symtek brand, and we plan on focusing on expanding our assortment.
One nice thing about our recent PPE success is that it has reminded me why we made the decision to transition from B2B to DTC. If you get the right product in front of the right eyeballs, you will be successful!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The most helpful piece of advice is to suggest that perfection is a productivity killer, especially with a website. It will never be done nor will it ever be perfect. Most times, however, it doesn’t matter because only you will know.
When it comes to picking partners, especially when it comes to online marketing, we’ve made so many mistakes. You need to test, test, and test more.
At the moment, we’ve decided that we won’t take a second meeting with anyone who doesn’t agree with a month-to-month arrangement.
So many companies do a great job selling themselves, but they don’t deliver.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
When we relaunched Symtek, we decided to do it in-house using Shopify. It was so easy and quick to set-up. Our Operations Director was able to get us up and running in less than two days with no prior website experience.
I’m a big fan of keeping it simple. I love Google, Gmail, Chrome, and all of the useful extensions available to make it my own.
We religiously study our Google Analytics to try to understand our visitors, and we are using Klaviyo with both sites for our email campaigns.
I’m addicted to Instagram and Tiktok and am constantly amazed by the creativity of the people on both platforms.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I prefer the Wall Street Journal to stay current with the news and a subscription to Apple News for a wide variety of topics, opinions, and points of view.
Their online catalog of magazines is great to get a wide variety of perspectives. You never know where your next great idea is going to come from.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I am constantly reminding my team that the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. Grinding and hustling are real, and the people who are willing to work harder than their peers are the ones who will get ahead.
Another mantra of mine is to listen more than I speak. God gave me two ears and one mouth, and I constantly need to remind myself to use them in that ratio.
Lastly, in adversity, there is an opportunity. During the bad times, the competition shrinks, and the cream rise to the top.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for social media influencers who are entrepreneurial, especially those who are equally comfortable on Instagram and TikTok.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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