Ash Young has run his own web design & digital marketing agency for almost 15 years. In 2020, during lockdown, he launched his own ecommerce site: carmats.co.uk. He set a target of reaching £1 million within the first 12 months ($1.3 million). Having just passed his first £100k+ month, and his first £5,000+ day just 5 months later, he is ahead of target.
In its fifth month since launch, carmats.co.uk achieved 3,157 orders, at an average order value of £36.64, meaning £115,667 in sales, and has been profitable since month 2.
Alongside running his own agency – Evoluted – Ash bought the domain name ‘carmats.co.uk’, built the site, found a supplier from whom he ships direct to customers, and launched the business in 2020.
Here Ash talks to dan barker about why he launched the site during lockdown, how he chose the market, how much the domain name cost, why he built it on the chosen ecommerce platform, how he’s marketing it, and his revenue and profitability stats.
Dan: You’ve run Evoluted for a while now– how long’s that been?
Ash: So I’ve run Evoluted since 2006. Basically my first job since leaving university – University of Sheffield. I remember when I joined – one of my lecturers said “if you’re here to learn about the web, and building websites, you’re in the wrong place because that’s not real programming”. But I set up Evoluted in 2006. We’ve just grown it since then really – it’s been really nice – it’s been slow organic growth, but that’s made it more manageable.
Dan: And you do web design and build, and digital marketing?
Ash: That’s basically it – we primarily do lead gen and ecommerce builds. And then on the other side of that it’s all forms of digital marketing, but primarily pay per click, SEO and a bit of paid social.
Dan: What made you decide to start an ecommerce site for yourself after all this time?
Ash: So for me – I start to get a bit bored, I get a bit of an itch. And in the run up to Covid I had an itch to go out there and prove myself and do something new. Running an agency of 35 people’s great, but I don’t get my hands dirty as much any more, I’m not allowed to do anything. I just get rolled out to talk to new clients and solve problems. I don’t get to build anything. So I wanted to build something, see what things were like out there. So that’s why I went out to start to build a car mats site. And for me car mats – it was a great business to get into, because it’s a utility product. People want it, they’re not fussy, there’re no brands. It’s a very strange market when you compare it to lots of other industries.
Dan: Presumably there’s also much less seasonality than some products?
Ash: There are slight seasons – you have a peak at Christmas, you have a peak at new car registrations in March and September.
Dan: People buy a new car and they then go out to buy a new car mat?
Ash: People buying new cars – they often don’t come with car mats because the car manufacturers are tight. Some do, some don’t. People expect it and then they get the car and they’re really annoyed, and they don’t want to buy them from the dealer because they’re £150 or something. So that’s where I come in. And obviously we’ve got the whole used car market as well which is really big. So that’s when people are buying a used car, they very rarely come with car mats.
Dan: And what made you pick car mats? Had you had it in the back of your mind, or did you do research across different products?
Ash: I did a bit of research. I’ve done some other products in the past that haven’t worked very well, and this time I wanted a product where I knew there wasn’t insane competition. So I did a bit of research for paid ads which is what’s driving most of my traffic at the moment, in terms of what cost per clicks and volumes were going to be like. And for me it seemed like it would work. And then when I managed to go out there and buy the carmats.co.uk domain name I knew that was it – bob on.
Dan: How did you get the domain name?
Ash: So I had a quick look at the domain name and you could see on wayback machine there used to be an ecommerce site that was selling car mats, based in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and the site was dead, there was no company information.
The way I actually ended up finding them to contact them was going onto domain tools whois history, because of course everything is hidden because of GDPR now. So I went back a few of years till I found an entry that had details on and I just called the telephone number. And it still worked, a guy picked up and he was like – I told him I was interested in buying carmats.co.uk do you guys still own it – and he was like “no, I don’t, but I know who does” and he gave me the guy’s mobile number.
So I called this guy & explained what I wanted to do and he was like – yeah, we’ll sell it, we don’t want to use it, we’re not going to use it again, so we had a bit of a negotiation. I got it for about £5,500 and fees so for me that was a win-win.
Dan: Good that you phoned them up – I guess lots of people would have only tried to buy through standard routes like Sedo or Domainlore or something rather than tracking them down and phoning up.
Ash: I see a lot of people that are afraid to go out into the real world and talk to people. A lot of people in the digital space will send an email or send a message. How many emails do you get about people wanting to buy something or sell something? They just get ignored. By ringing people and having an actual chat, it takes more effort but it’s well worth it. Before I actually spoke to something I phoned about 4 or 5 times before somebody picked up. Takes a bit more effort but it’s worth it.
Dan: Great – and then you were ready to build the site. Obviously you run Evoluted. Did you have someone from the company build the site or did you do it yourself? What was the process?
Ash: We were really busy, so I built it myself. I’d have loved Evoluted to do it, but the lead times we were running to didn’t really work for me. So I went out there and got our design team to put together a quick visual, and I went out there and got a Shopify theme and customized it to where I wanted it to be. A lot of it was trial and error so for example when you get to the product pages there’s quite a complex configuration – that’s all done outside of Shopify – that’s a custom plugin.
Dan: Must be impressive for the team at Evoluted – that the boss has gone off and built this on the side.
Ash: Well I think some of the team that have been there a long time know I used to do a lot of the work. Some of the people who’ve been here for just 12 months might think “who’s this guy? What does he know?” I think going out there and showing you can do these things gives you a lot of credibility with your team.
Dan: I guess also it must be useful for the agency. I guess lots of agencies don’t have any experience of running ecommerce sites directly, whereas you’re showing potential clients you have the ability to do what many of them are trying to do themselves.
Ash: We’ve not done too much with it so far – we’ve talked to a few leads about it. We’re going to put out some big case studies and include it in our marketing – I think you’re right: why would you go to an agency that don’t do it for themselves? People want to go to an agency who’ve proved they can do it, and what better way to prove you can do it than by running your own site and showing your real numbers, showing your real data? And obviously when talking to clients about things there’s no issues of confidentiality – we can share as much as we want to.
Dan: And talking about that transparency – when you launched it you put it out on Twitter saying you were launching this new thing, you’d set yourself a £1 million in the first year target. Usually when that happens, things go quiet and you realise they obviously didn’t manage it or got bored in the first few months. Why did you decide to do that?
Ash: I thought it would be a great showpiece for Evoluted, and what better way to do it than showing it publicly from the start. If I was successful people would see I’d been public from the start, and it wasn’t some kind of smoke and mirrors type of thing. So I wanted to do that show that we knew what we were talking about.
The £1 million target was two things – firstly it’s a big enough number that it starts to sound quite impressive. But secondly if you work back to how many car mats you need to actually sell each day, and you work it out, it’s actually quite achievable.
Dan: Roughly how many do you need to sell each day?
Ash: It was meant to be about 100, but I think my average order value is higher than I thought it would be, so I don’t have to sell that many to get to the £1 million. I was expecting an average order value of about £32, and I’m actually at about £36.
Dan: What’s been the biggest day so far?
Ash: Yesterday was the biggest day actually! I think I did 150 sets – no, 153 orders, so that’s more like 170 sets of car mats. 153, and it was £5364. Things are going up and up and up. I think that’s the hardest thing about it – trying to maintain that momentum.
Dan: So you’ve been going 5 months. What’s total revenue so far?
In September I did £115k. Total revenue to date is – bear with me in my spreadsheet – £297k. Since the first of may, so that’s 4 months… 5 months. We should way overachieve our target. I think it was 40ish percent growth in September from August. I don’t think I’ll do that in October because it’s typically a slower month because it’s not a new car month – there’s no new registration. But I should hopefully still be achieving 20-30% growth, then we hit the run up to Christmas so it should be strong all the way up to Christmas.
Dan: At what stage do you think you’ll hit the £1 million target?
Ash: I’m hoping to hit it probably February time. I mean when I started this challenge, I wasn’t expecting to get to £1 million in the first year – I was expecting to maybe get to £83k in a month.
Dan: So you could say “we’re at run-rate £1 million?”
Ash: Yeah – precisely. But actually I think we will actually do £1 million in the first year, which is really nice.
Dan: Amazing. Let’s talk a bit more about the website. It’s on Shopify – what made you choose that?
Ash: There were a couple of reasons – one I wanted something that was easy to set up and wasn’t going to be a massive faff because I was doing it myself. And the second part was because I was doing this public challenge, I didn’t want to go out there and pick a platform that was going to be really expensive for people to get into. I wanted a platform that was like $29 a month or whatever, so that other people could crack on and have a go – it’s not the end of the world if it goes wrong.
Dan: That’s really nice – so part of the idea was to inspire other people?
Ash: Precisely. Because I was doing the public journey out there, that’s also part of the reason I didn’t want to use Evoluted to build it – I didn’t want to go out there and use an agency to build a big, complicated, expensive website, because that’s not accessible to everyone. I wanted to show that anyone could have gone out there and done this if that makes sense.
Dan: So presumably in terms of plugins and stuff like that, you haven’t chosen really expensive extras or tools?
Ash: Yeah, so all the plugins I’m using are like $20-30 a month. I think the plugin that drives all my sales – the custom options plugin – is like $29 a month. That’s the best $29 I’ve ever spent. I had to do a fair bit of front end to make it look nice, because out of the box it didn’t look great, but it configures all of the products for me, I can change all the product options in one place, their support is mind-blowingly good for $29 a month.
Literally I email them and say this bit doesn’t work and they just fix it. The plugin’s called “advanced custom options”. That works really well, and lets me do things like – actually I haven’t got it on there yet but – personalization. So you can get your name, or your partner’s name embroidered on your car mats. And I’m also going to use it to power more upsells, so if you’re buying car mats and you want to add a boot mat, you can just tick a box to add that onto your order.
Dan: And so in terms of things, are you still on just the regular Shopify package? You must hit a point in your revenue where with such fast growth it would make sense to upgrade from a financial point of view?
Ash: I was – I’ve just upgraded to Shopify Plus. You work out when it makes sense to upgrade. I’ve moved up the plans as it made financial sense because on Plus they reduce the transaction fees. I got to the top of the normal plan, and then I’ve jumped up to Shopify Plus which is a lot more expensive.
But I want to launch – I own vanmats.co.uk as well – they’re quite a big market. I want to launch a site for that.
I also want to launch a trade site. There’s a lot of used car dealers who’ll use car mats as a sweetener to get people to buy a car, so I want to get them on the platform and buying, so I want to launch a trade site so they get special pricing and create some stickiness. But there’s also leasing companies and people like that who’ll use it. I spoke to someone yesterday who wants to order 2,000 sets of car mats per year. So they’re all one-offs, but they just want a platform so they can go out and buy them and get an invoice.
With Shopify: because I can do all the cloned stores you can do that, and when I’m on Shopify Plus there are no fees for that, they’ll just clone it all for you with no extra expense.
Dan: So you’re not planning to stop with a single site, you’ll use Shopify Plus to power multiple sites so that you can cover various parts of the car mat market?
Ash: That’s the idea – to do the retail, but also own the trade side of things. But that’s going to be hard because you can’t reach lots of those through digital – you’ve got to go out there and give them something physical.
Dan: Do you think you’ll do anything international too, or just stick with the UK?
Ash: Obviously we’re right-hand drive in the UK. My supplier has all the left-hand drive templates as well. The next step will be to go out into Ireland, that’s also right-hand drive, so that’s easy – it’s a smaller market, but it’s just a case of cloning the site for the market and setting it up in Euros. I’d be very happy to go out into Europe. My sister lives in France – she’s actually helped me with some of the population of the site – she’s going to be a great help to get a French site set up.
Germany’s massive, but one thing I haven’t really read into is how to do ecommerce in all these countries, in terms of what the local requirements are. I’m up on the UK’s requirements, but I imagine Germany have very different rules on what is and isn’t ok. So apparently in Germany, paying by bank account is quite a big thing, whereas in the UK that’s just mindblowing – we just think why not use a credit card? But I’m assuming Shopify will sort out much of that anyway – that’s one of the advantages of using an international platform.
Dan: Great – so that’s the site, but of course marketing is probably one of the harder things for most people to tackle. How did you approach that – did you put together a plan with channels and rough costs, or did you just get going and test things through different channels?
Ash: I’d done some research – I knew there was a lot of volume for people searching for car mats for their model, so like Ford Focus car mats. So the obvious initial channel was to go out with Google ads, and target people who are looking for the products I have. And when I launched the site, I only launched it with Ford Focus populated, so basically I did an MVP. It looked like a real website, all the menu was there and looked clickable, but you couldn’t click into anything except for Ford Focus. So I set up a whole host of ads for Ford Focus just to prove the model basically. So bring people into the Ford Focus page to see what they were buying.
In those first few weeks, they weren’t buying, it was absolutely horrible, I was just pouring money down the drain. I was like “oh my god this is not going to work, and I’ve gone out publicly and said I’m going to do this thing”. I thought what have I done? But I did it – I put HotJar on the site, and just spent time literally watching people to see what they were doing, and realized I’d been basically too clever. I’d tried to be really clever with product descriptions and stuff like that. And people buying car mats, they don’t care, they just want to buy some car mats. So I made a number of changes over about a week, to make it simpler, make it so that people could understand it more easily, and the conversion rate went up to a more sensible level. I knew it was going to work and started building it out model by model to verify that it was going to work.
And then because I’d done Ford Focus, I moved to a model 3, because I’ve got a model 3 and all of my photography was based around a model 3. I hoped it would do quite well because all the shots look like a model 3 because they are a model 3, and they did – much better than Ford.
Dan: Did you hit any other unexpected issues you learned from?
One of the things I wasn’t expecting was that different models would sell differently. My view as a marketeer was that if someone searches for their model and “car mats”, the conversion rate across the board would be very similar. Why would it differ? The reality is the conversion rate differs hugely. So Ford Focus, and Ford more generally, conversion rate’s pretty bad compared to something like VW. And I can’t really tell you why. It’s definitely the product because we have the product.
Dan: And it’s not like based on how expensive the car is?
Ash: No, not at all. So BMW doesn’t convert as well, but the reason they may not sell as well is they’re really confusing. We’ve probably got 50 different products for a 3 series, whereas for a Ford Focus we’ve got 6. So for a 3 series it’s hard to know which one is right for you, whereas for a Ford Focus it’s a really simple product – you know that’s the one you need, just go and buy it.
Another thing that might be different – and I’ve not checked – there might not be as big differential between what we charge and what Ford charge, so actually they may be going “I can buy a non-original for X, or I can go direct to Ford and buy it for just a bit more”, whereas Tesla for example, they do them for £120, whereas we do them £20-£60, so it’s a no-brainer. The manufacturers make a huge amount of money on car mats, they’re a huge margin item for them.
Dan: And product-wise you’d mentioned you thought your AOV would be about £32, and it’s above that at the moment, do you have plans for pushing that up further?
Ash: So my plan for pushing that up is personalization, and add-on sales. So an obvious add-on sale is a second set of car mats. We don’t promote that at the moment, but people are buying 2 sets at once quite extensively. One of the things that Shopify Plus lets me do is automatically apply promotions when people buy multiple items through the scripting side of things. So we can get a message on the site saying ‘buy a second set and save X’, and that discount will automatically apply at the checkout.
And the third thing is getting people to buy boot mats at the same time, if we’ve got them.
I do have plans to encourage people to buy additional related products. A big thing for the long term is – we know what vehicle these people own. There’s the ability to then send them other related products.
Dan: Presumably most current customers it’s a one-off purchase, you don’t get a lot of repeat customers?
Ash: The things I’m going to look at doing: I’ve started to use Klaviyo for email marketing. Probably after a year we’ll try and get people to come back and buy a new set, because the cost is low enough that they may come back to buy another set to keep things fresh. And of course there are other things like first aid kits that people want to have in their cars, that we could sell quite effectively.
Dan: Is that something you’re going to focus on a lot? Try and grow the business through adding products?
Ash: I think there’s a lot of potential to cross-sell other products, but what I want to do first is nail car mats, before I spread myself too thin. I see it a lot with clients where they try to do a million things at once, for me it should be like: you nail one product first, then you move on and nail the next. One big thing we are moving into – and this is going to be big for Christmas – is gift cards. Gifting is really big around Christmas and – although i got called sexist for this the other day – people buy car mats for their uncles and fathers, but there’s a fear factor of do you know what that person drives? Have you got the right car? So we’re going to sell really nice presentation box that have a bit of the actual carpet in. We’re going to embroider ‘carmats.co.uk’ along here:
We’ll put a nice gift card in there, they’ll go in a nice box with tissue paper. So you’ll go on the site, you can buy a nice gift card for £50, and you’ll get a nice gift you can give on Christmas day.
We don’t do a lot of social at the moment, but we’re going to try that on social in the run up to Christmas. I think that’ll work really well because it looks a lot more interesting, and we don’t need to know about vehicles – because that’s all you’re buying, the gift card.
Dan: You mean paid social, right? Not organic?
Ash: Yeah that’s right. So at the moment all we’re doing on social is we’re doing remarketing ads on Facebook and Instagram. I do want to extend that, but the priority for me is – I want to finish building out the paid ads on Google – because we’re doing paid ads for every manufacturer/model, but we’ve probably got another 30% to go. It’s all the little models and manufacturers left, so we’re not going to see huge sales growth because there’s not so much volume, but they should work quite well because there’s not a lot of competition.
Dan: That’s great – so presumably with paid advertising, that’s a decent amount of cost. So that means you’ve got product cost, marketing cost, delivery cost, platform fees. You’ve spoken a lot about revenue – how are things going from a profitability point of view?
Ash: In terms of costs, we roughly run at about ⅔ margin – it’s quite a high margin product. Ad costs are probably about ⅓ again, if not slightly more. Then you’ve got everything else like Shopify, transaction fees, dealing with returns and cancellations, but in terms of profitability I’m running at about 15%. After 5 months it’s great, because I wasn’t expecting to be making money at the moment. That’s a question I get asked a lot on social media – people say “you keep talking about revenue but you could be losing money” – I’m not thankfully. I lost on month one, but I’ve made that back and much more now.
green = profit, red = ad cost, blue = product cost
Dan: And customer support – how are you handling that at the moment?
Ash: So customer support is probably the biggest pain point we have at the moment. We get about 20 or so emails a day, we also get about 25 phone calls, 30 phone calls a day. That was a real problem but one of the things we did to help that was we put a phone system in place, and what that does is if you’re calling about an existing order it asks you to send an email because you’ll get an answer quicker. In terms of our customer support we’re absolutely on it – normally everyone gets a response within 2-3 hours within working time.
We also respond to emails over the weekend, which I think lots of companies don’t, so that helps bring any frustrations of our customers down. And we’re pushing everything into Zendesk, and have done for the last couple of months, and that’s worked really well for us.
Caroline my wife’s doing all the customer support side of things, and helping customers find the right car mats, or dealing with deliveries that have gone astray. For example we had a chap who couldn’t find his car mats – they’d showed as delivered, we had a photo of his front door where they’d been delivered, he said “yep, that’s my front door”. Then he emailed us again a few days later and told us a neighbour down the street had taken them in – there’d apparently been heavy winds, and they’d blown away and a neighbour had held them for him.
Most of the issues tend to be where someone’s ordered for the wrong car – and we do our best to stop that from possibly happening – or someone’s missed a delivery – or something’s gone wrong with the courier and they haven’t delivered – that happens, couriers don’t always deliver as they should do.
But as a company I’m really keen we exemplify what I think of as best practice. So quite often we resolve any problems, often at our cost, and just crack on.
We have a great relationship with our supplier, so any genuine product problems we just document it and put in another order free of charge, and they send out a replacement no questions asked. That side of things is really good, but anything else we suck up – so for example we still take returns on items that are personalised, even though legally we wouldn’t have to, because we’re trying really hard to build that trust factor.
Dan: So are you doing anything to build trust through things like reviews? Are you using TrustPilot or anything like that?
Ash: Yeah, we’re using reviews.io. It was primarily a cost decision, because TrustPilot is a little more expensive. The only problem I have with reviews.io is something we’ve spoken about – that some people don’t realise their reviews are public, they think they’re just giving feedback.
That’s one of the things we’re using Klaviyo for: The whole customer journey and management of it. So if you order now, you’re not going to get your mats for 8 or 9 days, because they’re all custom – they’re all made to order. So you place your order, if you don’t hear from us till the day before your mats arrive, that’s where customer service questions come from because people are asking “where’s my order?”. And actually that’s all clear on the website, but people don’t read everything, they just want to place their order.
So now with Klaviyo, for example, if you order on a Friday, we send you an email automatically on Monday lunchtime to let you know your order has entered production. Then we send out a series of emails after that, just to basically let them know something’s happening, and their order’s moving on. And then we send an email out just before the reviews.io email just to say “let us know if you’re having any issues”. And lots of those just get replies saying “the mats are great, thanks very much”, but they are catching a few where people are having issues, and that’s what we want because then we can fix any issues before they leave a negative review.
Dan: Final question – it sounds like you’re building up and up. Is there a long term plan, or are you just seeing where things go?
To an element I’m seeing how things go. Long term plan would be to build this for 4 or 5 years and then see what happens. I think it’s one of those businesses where if I’m still enjoying it I’d keep doing it; if I’m not then yeah I’d look to exit the business and do something different.
Dan: That makes sense, but it sounds like you’re really enjoying it.
Ash: I’m really enjoying it right now. It’s rekindled my passion for ecommerce a little bit. I think getting out there & getting my hands dirty a lot more has really helped me – has made me realise I’ve been missing that as part of the agency. I’ve moved away from a lot of the doing – I don’t really do any of the doing – other people do that, and it’s made me realise I missed that.
Dan: That’s a great thing, particularly in a year where there’ve been lots of difficulties, and launching during a long lockdown
Ash: I think without a lockdown I don’t think it would have happened you know? During that period at the start of lockdown when we launched it, a lot of what I did went away, I couldn’t go out there, I wasn’t meeting people, they weren’t interested in having conversations because they wanted to sort out their own companies. So I ended up with a lot of time on my hands. At Evoluted we moved to working at home really easily, so that meant I had the time to build out the site, work on the frontend, populate it, and get it ready for launch in May.
Dan: One of the very few benefits of lockdown! That’s brilliant. Thanks so much, Ash, best of luck with carmats.co.uk, and I look forward to meeting up again soon.