It takes superhuman strength to open a man crate. Recipients struggle with crowbars and hammers –– working tirelessly, often having to call in help in order to pry open the wooden box containing beef jerky and nuts.
Beads of sweat drip down their face, the Man Crates customer –– likely the man’s “supposed” friend, family member or partner –– giggling like a middle-schooler in the background.
Back at Man Crates HQ, a similar feat of superhuman capabilities is afoot.
In less than four years, a small San Francisco group of friends grew their quirky business idea –– near impossible to open gift boxes –– 4,900% to $21 million in annual revenue.
Like the secret to opening the box itself, success is found in how you leverage the hook.
Growth Hacking Cryptonite
The Man Crates team is no stranger to hard work. Hell, they built a box that’ll wear out the strongest among us both physically and mentally.
Four years ago, they were a team of four in a garage. Today, they are a team of 49 in a warehouse in one of the most expensive locales by square footage in North America.
That kind of trajectory isn’t accidental. It doesn’t happen on the first try. It takes a tool.
And while men with crowbars make for a high-engagement photo on social media, the tool Man Crates used to build their business to the 4th fastest growing retailer in the U.S. is one impossible to see with the naked eye: APIs and webhooks.
What is an API?
APIs, for the unfamiliar, are connection endpoints for various software. They are what make everything you use on the web work together. It’s how you get an email from Facebook to your Google account saying you received a new notification. It’s how you can checkout via Square or PayPal when you’re shopping at any online store.
APIs make the modern web function –– and you use them everyday.
But, you use common ones. You use ones that have been connected to serve a particular purpose, one often derived by the business which created the API itself.
- Facebook’s API talks to Google. There was a wide-spread use case and business need for that. What’s being solved here: Ensuring that the two most popular methods of web communication help users keep track of their interactions.
- Square or PayPal’s API talks to online stores. There was a wide-spread use case and business need for that. What’s being solved here: Ensuring that customers can checkout using the services they are most familiar with, and that inventory and payment will go back to the correct store owner. Also, this solves for store owners having to build their own, unique point of sale system.
In 2012, as Man Crates began pulling in their first orders, they too took advantage of common APIs. In the ecommerce industry, these are known as apps or integrations. BigCommerce alone offers more than 300 of these apps that integrate with an online store to simplify processes and facilitate streamlined communication between different parts of a business.
Using easy to edit templates, built-in shipping provider integrations and inventory management, and increasing customer loyalty and AOV through abandoned cart emails, the Man Crates team was set for year one –– and presumably into the future had the business not taken off as it had.
But Man Crates was growing at an unprecedented scale for their niche and soon, the team needed something much more complex than one-click installations –– something more specific to their unique business needs.
That’s when they began building upon their installation of BigCommerce –– creating what they would soon call “the Octopus.”
Always on the Move, Never Staying Put
It started with Shipworks, a shipping integration that offers shipping provider discounts, easy printing of labels, importing of all orders across all channels to a centralized backend and automated shipping tasks, just to name a few of its functionalities.
It’s a key integration, and a pre-existing one on the BigCommerce backend. Man Crates installed it relatively early on in the company’s life. From there, they began to save money on shipping rates –– and save time by eliminating the need for manual functions.
Suddenly, they were getting orders out faster and more accurately. Customers were reaping the benefits of a single API solution, that allowed the team more time to focus on front end activities.
And yet, off-line, back in that garage they started in, the walls were closing in on them.
They had too many boxes, and too few people.
It was time to move spaces –– and bring their two-pronged backend solution with them. It was only the first of four moves they’d make over the course of their four years in business to date.
Read that again: It was the first of four moves they’d make –– one each year.
That’s akin to moving to a new house every year. The packing and boxing. The unpacking and unboxing. The organizing and reorganizing. The trying to figure out just exactly where you put that extra pair of scissors –– this drawer … or that.
It’s an agonizing process –– but a necessary one. A business needs space in which to function, after all.
In fact, the only thing more crucial than having the appropriate square footage in which to operate your business is actually ensuring your business can run while you move.
“That was a huge time sink,” says Sam Gong, co-founder of Man Crates. “It was amazing not to have to worry about our storefront during all of those other changes to the business. Having an extensible platform that allowed us to easily customize our fulfillment strategy to best serve our customers from multiple warehouses was amazing.”
Did you catch that? Beyond moving actual warehouses, Man Crates was opening up additional distribution centers –– and they needed to make sure that when a customer placed an order, the information was going to the correct center to account for the cheapest and speediest shipping.
That’s where things got tricky.
APIs: The Secret to Unseen Innovation, Can’t-Miss Revenue
“Once we got to the point where we were really doing complicated things, on-demand manufacturing and managing inventory across multiple locations –– then we tapped into the API,” says Gong.
“We wrote small applications that just took notifications from BigCommerce and downloaded the data order by order then routed it one-by-one to the systems it needed to go to.”
This is what makes up the whole of Man Crates’ API octopus. It’s a system, centralized by activity on their website, which takes consumer behavior (like conversion), turns it into data and spits it out to the right software programs.
For instance, a QuickBooks integration takes all of their sales information and spits it into already formatted accounting sheets for business review and tax purposes. And, the API is set up to make this happen at whatever cadence the team decides is best (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly).
That’s a simple API –– but an important one. Another equally important one, and much more difficult to solve for, is customer satisfaction via on-site experience and personalization.
See, as the brand was growing, they realized the need for customized items. After all, it was gifts they were shipping. And gifts, by their nature, are personalized.
So, they launched on-demand manufacturing capabilities for personalized boxes. Now, not only did they need shipping details to pull from the correct warehouses and distribution centers –– they needed the customized order to pull the correct items for the correct boxes and then land those boxes in the correct center for the quickest and cheapest shipping options.
And they needed the algorithm to show those options to the customer in real-time while they were about to hit “purchase” on the site.
Because if they didn’t, Man Crates would have turned from a gift box producer and seller into a custom order machine. They would need to hire customer service reps to take on custom orders and route those orders to the appropriate places –– using calculations (hopefully up to date!) to tell a customer exactly how much their desired gift would cost –– shipping and tax included.
Few businesses have time for that –– and Man Crates definitely did not.
Between moving warehouses and opening distribution centers, Man Crates continued to focus on understanding what makes a great gift and how to build a brand that conveys value. Copywriting is a crucial part of how they reach their audience.
And you simply can’t outsource good copy.
I ran across a recent article about content marketing on Medium. It nailed this idea in the best phrasing of words I’ve come across yet:
You cannot outsource your thinking. Many times while working through a presentation or blog post, you’ll find that you’re developing new thoughts and adding clarity to the thoughts that have been bouncing around in your brain. This happens because you have a deep understanding of your product, market, and customer. People that lack that deep, strategic understanding of your business simply can’t do this. And really, it’s unfair to expect that a content marketer (or anyone for that matter) should do your thinking for you.
Man Crates knows this to be true –– and all you have to do is take a look at their website to know it.
Their copy is genuinely funny. It’s engaging. It’s light-hearted. And most of all, it speaks directly to its customer: friends, family members and partners of self-described “manly men” who are difficult to buy gifts for.
There’s a pun in there somewhere –– I can’t think of it. But the Man Crates team could. That’s where they have spent most of their money. On understanding their customer, nailing their branding and then making top-notch marketing to really drive it all home.
That said, with brand building as a top priority, the Man Crates team couldn’t have scaled with a manual approach to increasingly complex operational needs.
The octopus –– which they fondly call the “order-pus” –– solves most of those needs for them.
AI Looks More Like Automation Than Robotics
Today, with 49 full time employees, the Man Crates team has integrated everything from a custom built content marketing platform to various manufacturing automation tools into the backend. It all works seamlessly, sending notifications to the right places at the right times so that employees can focus on getting the job done rather than figuring out algorithmic complexities.
“We don’t expect our ecommerce backend to solve all of these really unique problems that we have as product. It can’t be all things to all people. It would be crazy for it to try,” says Gong.
“It has just a really robust API and reliable webhooks, and that gives us the flexibility to do whatever we need on top of the platform.”
This has been the secret sauce to Man Crates’ success. This has been their strategic advantage. This has been how they’ve executed on a lean business model and made $21M in revenue before their 5th birthday.
And while customers and recipients from The Today Show and The View to family gatherings at Christmas and Bachelor parties in Vegas continue to struggle –– the team behind the scenes rests easy.
Not much will crack this box.