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Entrepreneurship is an Educational Process with Rob Seo and Raja Agnani - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 161

Robert was born and raised in Maryland and went to UMD for undergrad. 

He joined the US Marines while still studying and in 2003, took a year off for Operation Iraqi Freedom with a light armored reconnaissance unit. 

After his deployment, he received his Bachelors in Economics with a Minor in Math and moved to NYC to work at UBS in investment banking. 

After a few years, he moved to South America for a year to learn Spanish and to do an Ironman Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile marathon). 

After completing the race, he came back to NYC and worked at Goldman Sachs in their Principal Strategies Group investing around the world and across various industries before receiving an MBA from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). 

After graduation, he moved to Korea for a year to look for startup ideas and moved back to NYC as the CEO and cofounder of Slidejoy.

Slidejoy was acquired by Buzzvil in 2017. 

After running the US operations of Buzzvil, he co founded P.S. with a few friends. 

Raja Agnani was born in Queens, NY, and has spent the majority of his life in Southern California. 

After graduating from UCLA as a Regents Scholar with a BS in Biology, he worked in investment banking at Jefferies & Company in San Francisco. 

Raja then worked at Relativity Media, a private equity-backed investment firm and media startup, where he evaluated and executed 25+ investments in top Hollywood films and other media entities.

He left this role to pursue his MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. 

After graduating, Raja worked at Facebook, where he led business strategy and operations within the sales organization, and helped some of the largest advertisers in the world grow their businesses utilizing Facebook and Instagram. 

An entrepreneur at heart, Raja has always wanted to start his own company — combining his desire to create high quality consumer products and a passion for Ecommerce, he co-founded P.S.

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:22] Rob’s Ecom background
  • [03:26] Raja’s Ecom background
  • [05:37] Do you need a co-founder?
  • [10:38] The lack of competition in the market
  • [14:47] Regulations in the condom industry
  • [17:06] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [17:26] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
  • [18:10] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [19:37] Sponsor: BeProfit beprofit.co
  • [21:08] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [22:13] What makes PS different
  • [24:09] Developing trust is important for brands like PS
  • [29:16] Growth and success is a learning process
  • [31:05] Your brand is a representation of you
  • [32:44] Think about the long-term in your brand
  • [33:35] Building relationships through interactions
  • [34:38] Where to find PS condoms

Resources:

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 Transcript:

 

Raja Agnani  

Your main advantage against these massive companies is your speed and your ability to iterate and try different things.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Chase Clymer  

Hey, everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. Today, we are welcomed by 2 amazingly smart entrepreneurs and very nice gentlemen. 

They let me reschedule this because of some technical issues, so I can't thank them enough for that. Today we're welcoming to the show, Rob and Raja

I will keep the product a secret for a second. It's a very good one. But before we get into the product and launch a very unique brand direct-to-consumer, let's talk a bit about your guys' background and what got you here. 

So Rob, why don't you lead us off?

Rob Seo  

Yeah, sure. So I was born and raised in Maryland, right outside DC. And I went to University of Maryland for undergrad. And while I was in school, I joined the Marines because I just... It's something I had to do. 

And took a year off of school to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, punched through Kuwait, took Baghdad... We're in missions down south after the invasion and then came back to school.

After I came back, I graduated. Worked. Moved to New York. Did investment banking for a few years with UBS. And then decided that I just always wanted to do an Ironman Triathlon and I always wanted to live in South America. So it's both of those together. 

So I trained in the mountains in Ecuador, for 6 months, I trained in the mountains in Colombia for 6 months and I finished the race out in Brazil. 

Came back to New York. Worked at Goldman Sachs on the prop desk for a bit and then went to Wharton for Business School, which is where I met Raja. And then so but after school, I just decided I want to start my own company. 

So at the same time, I wanted to live in Korea. So I moved to Korea, just looking at different ideas, meet different people. And that's where I met my co-founders for my previous company. It was called Slidejoy

As I moved back to New York, I started that company. After a few years, I sold it to a Korean company. I headed up the US office for that company for a few years. 

And then, but along the way, I was just  thinking, "Well, what's a good consumer product? A physical product versus an app, a piece of software?" 

Because I felt like that has a little bit more character and personality behind it. But before I go on, I think maybe an intro (from) Raja will be good.

Raja Agnani  

Yeah. Awesome. Thanks, Rob. So yeah, I'm originally from Queens, New York. My parents moved to Southern California when I was 11 years old, and pretty much have been in California since then. I went to UCLA for undergrad. 

And after college, like Rob, I worked in investment banking for a couple of years. Really great experience. Really a tough, rigorous place to work. At the same time, very quickly realized I was not going to want to do that for the rest of my life. 

Ended up working for a company that did financing of major Hollywood films. So I ended up working for them building out financial models and financing some of the top films from 2008 to 2010, when I was there. 

Realized I didn't necessarily want to do that either. I also went to business school where Rob and I were in the same section. 

And then after business school, I also thought "I want to work in technology." I ended up working at Facebook and Instagram post acquisition for about 5 years. 

Worked with some of the largest advertisers in the world, helped them plan and prepare and use the tools available on Facebook and Instagram to build their own marketing channels and acquire customers and do the same things that we've been doing but obviously, on a much smaller scale. 

Worked there for about 5 years. It was a great, great time but also realized, thinking back to even my original jobs and investment banking and other places. I always wanted to be on the other side of the table. 

I was more interested in learning what the companies are doing or what our clients are doing, rather than being the person advising them or being the person that's working with them, helping them raise money, that sort of thing. 

So I wanted to start something. And my family background, my entire family's pretty much in the apparel industry, but nobody's ever really created a brand. 

But it was really about selling physical products, importing, exporting, that sort of thing. So, while I've been around that world, I knew I wanted to do something in Ecommerce. 

And then Rob approached me with this idea because I told him I was leaving Facebook, and he was just like, "Alright, I have an idea."

Chase Clymer  

Before we get to that idea, I do want to ask you guys a very specific question. Because it's, it's very rare that I have 2 co-founders on the show at the same time. 

And this might be something that a lot of our listeners are experiencing now with, "Should I have a co-founder?" And if so how does the division of power work? Or what are some of the best practices in finding a co-founder for a direct-to-consumer, CPG Brand?

Rob Seo  

Yeah. For me... It was, I looked at Raja and I was like, "Hey man, you have great hair. And obviously, I have great hair too. So we should just do something together." 

And seriously though, I think what we found is that it's just complementary skill sets. I think that's what you need to look for. Now, I actually teach a class on entrepreneurship at NYU

And one of the things that I preach is, "Look, figure out what you need in terms of skills in order to get to where you want to get with the company." 

And then you have to know yourself, you have to understand what are your limitations? What are your strengths? What are your interests? And then check the boxes of what the skills are that you have for what the company needs. 

And then there's going to be a big list of things that you're just not good at or interested in or that you don't know well and find somebody or people who do fill in those blanks. And I think that's the way to think about it. 

So if you're somebody who could build a product, who is able to market very well, who's able to also do operations, and knows how to run a business from a financial standpoint, focusing on metrics, and you have all the time in the world then, by all means. 

But if you don't have everything there, it's going to be tough. Not to say that there aren't very successful solo founders out there. 

And it's also a matter of "At what point of the stage of the company do you need what type of skill?" 

And if you're able to start as a solo founder, get it to a point where you could attract another founder where you need that skill at that moment. That's another way to do it. 

Yeah. Sorry, that was a little long winded. But yeah, I don't want to derail the conversation too much.

Raja Agnani  

Yeah. I can just... I'll cap that off with... I think if you... I think these days, it's totally possible to be a solo founder. 

Sourcing products, especially in Ecommerce, with Shopify being so dominant, you can plug in so many different apps to Shopify that can control a lot of what you're doing. 

You can use a 3PL, you can use so many... So many ways to just outsource a lot of the work required. But I think for us, it's a lot about... It's also about trust, it's also about willingness to just dig in, and then also have someone who is along for the ride.

I've definitely seen friends and people in my family also who are solo founders, and it gets lonely. Entrepreneurship is hard, startups are hard. 

Having other people there with you. Sometimes, it could be a lot more fun.It could be a lot more collaborative. 

And sometimes when you are just kind of on that island on your own, there's a lot of power, but then there's also when things get rough, you're gonna be seeking help outside a little bit. 

And I think with us, we just have a... I don't think we covered every single skill that Rob mentioned when we started, but we had a willingness to just learn and a trust that the other person is going to learn this thing and do it 80% - 90%, as well as an expert in that world. 

And so I think the willingness to just pick different things up and say, "Hey, I'm not great at legal. I don't even enjoy it. But I'll deal with the lawyer. I'll deal with all of this trademark stuff that we're doing. And we'll just keep... Let's just... The rest of things just keep going while I work on this."

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. You guys shared a lot of amazing stuff there. You know, I think that some of the highlights were you definitely want a founder. The yin to your yang, I guess. 

You don't want 2 highly technical co-founders because then you have the same skills that you could both be working on. 

And then where you're lacking, you're both lacking so it doesn't really make the best match, I guess. It's something I wanted to highlight. And then trust, like Rob talked about. You need to... 

You need to date this person, honestly. You can't dive into a business partnership without knowing somebody really because... I think I talked to my co-founder more than I talked to some previous girlfriends, it's a very hands-on relationship. 

Raja Agnani  

Yeah. Definitely. 

Chase Clymer  

So with that, I think we can... We can kind of pivot to the product a bit, because I guess relationships have a lot to do with your product. So Rob, you saw a gap in the market, I guess. I'll let you tell the story.

Rob Seo  

Yeah, I saw a gap in the market. I decided to attack it. So we sell condoms. And the way we got there is I was working in corporate America, and I realized that my sense of humor is not appropriate for a professional setting. So I decided that... 

I was thinking about what's a product that would be conducive to me making dick jokes all day and condoms are it. So now.... So basically... Yeah... 

I don't know if you use condoms. But everybody who uses condoms hates condoms, right? I don't think anybody out there is like, "Oh, I love using condoms." Nobody likes using condoms. And I was just... I was single for 13 years. 

I'm happily married now but I was single for 13 years. I hate using condoms. And I'm like, "Why is that?" And I did a little digging. 

And I've tried condoms from you know, different countries or whatever and I realized that the condoms in America just suck. And they don't have to suck. And I was looking to know why. 

And I found there's 3 companies that are 90% of the market. And they're each all over... They're all over 100 years old. So generally, older companies are not as innovative, especially if they're entrenched in the market. So they don't have an incentive to market a good product. 

They're in every single pharmacy chain, they're at your drugs... At the convenience store, you pick up condoms. They're just ubiquitous. I walked in, in college to a CVS

And everything that I saw on the rack was pretty much just Trojan. They're 70% of the market. And we're... So I was... For 10 years, I was just using Trojans. I never thought twice about it, because that was literally the only option that I had. 

And but then after trying different kinds, I was like, "Whoa, it doesn't have to be this way." So that was something that was attractive to me. And then the other side is on the branding side. The "Trojan man", he epitomizes what toxic masculinity is. 

Like you have to sound or be a certain type of way to be considered manly. And if you look at me, I'm not like a big dude. I'm a skinny guy. And I struggled when I was younger, with "Oh, am I manly enough?" 

And I think that kind of led me to overshoot. I'm like, "Oh, I'm gonna join the military. I want to serve. I should join the Marines because that's the hardest branch or I'm like, "Well, I'm not going to do a 5k. Because that's not manly enough, I'm going to do an Ironman." 

I think that definitely made an impact on the decisions that I made in my life. And after doing those things, I just looked back and I'm like, "Why the fuck did I do that?" 

And I think the conclusion was, "Well, I think I am manly enough. I think  what I need to do is just accept that for what it is." And being confident and accepting yourself is manly. 

Confidence is attractive. Confidence is sexy. It's manly. And like people just respond to that. So in terms of our brand, what we want to go out with is just say, "Look, do you own it? And that in and of itself is manly, whatever that is." 

And so I think from a branding perspective, from a product perspective, there were a lot of opportunities that we just identified and we just wanted to do something about it. 

Raja Agnani  

And dick jokes. We get to make dick jokes all day.

Rob Seo  

And dick jokes. Yeah. (laughs)

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So let's talk about launching a... Well, my first question for you would be with launching a product like this, there's obviously regulations to go through. How is that journey?

Raja Agnani  

Yeah, definitely, I was gonna say condoms are actually Class 2 medical devices that are regulated by the FDA. So any condom you see on the shelves is the manufacturers inspected by the FDA. They've been cleared by the FDA. 

So we had to go through that same process ourselves. So we jumped through a few hoops. We have to work with manufacturers that are approved by the FDA to distribute within the United States. And then we had to ourselves register with the FDA and work on that. 

And  there was a bit of a, there were a bit of hurdles on the way because as products get imported into the country, it goes through customs, and then it goes through the FDA. And then sometimes they take samples and they test them again. Because there are a lot of... 

Unlike let's say a razor. When a razor doesn't work, you get a cut on your neck, and you're like, "Hey, I'm never going to use that razor." 

If your condom doesn't work there could be much more, I guess, life-altering sort of things that occur as a result. So we definitely don't want that. 

And it's great that there are some hoops to jump through, in a sense for us, because I think it provides a market where there's fewer players, there's less competition in a way than let's say we started an apparel brand where there's just there's probably a million apparel brands.

Rob Seo  

Yeah. So the way I approached it is we went to manufacturers and talked about how we wanted to come up with just the best condom that we could. So we worked with a manufacturer to come out with... 

Worked on a formulation came out with something that we really liked, and piggyback off of their... 

They have their relationships with the FDA they have and through that we're able to get it cleared. So yeah, it's definitely a process, but we think it's worth it. 

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Chase Clymer  

And you spoke a little bit earlier about all these legacy brands that were just entrenched. And you know, I agree that a lot of legacy brands spend more money on marketing than they do product innovation. 

I know you guys did some new, unique things with innovation. So I'll give you some time to shine the product right now.

Rob Seo  

So overall, like the way we like to pitch is to say "Look, you won't know that it's on." 

And actually we have a lot of reviews, we have like over 500 reviews, and a lot of them talk about how they really can't tell. 

Some of them will say "I thought it came off. So I pulled out and I checked if it was on, to see if it was still there because I was freaking out. But it was still there." 

And so overall, that's what we... That's our goal. One, we just don't want to take away from the experience. Two, It doesn't smell. Going along with the experience. 

When you open up a Trojan or these other brands, it's like you just hit with a waft of latex. And it's something I never really noticed. 

But what we found is that it's... In the process of making the latex there's a dairy byproduct called Casein that's used by these legacy brands. And that's actually what makes it smell like latex, it's not the latest itself. So that just draws it out even more. So by bypassing the casein... 

One, it's vegan. So I think it opens it up to a different market. But two, it just makes it not smell as bad. You could hardly smell like our condoms. So it doesn't take away from the experience in that perspective. 

And then lastly, it's just it doesn't have, you know, like nitrosamines or glycerin, paraben, all these other ingredients that these other common brands use. But ours, they don't have that. 

So it's just better ingredients, it doesn't smell, it just feels a lot better. And so the idea is you could have safe sex, but it feels like regular sex. So that's  pretty much it.

Chase Clymer  

Alright. So you've got a market that you're ready to penetrate. You've got a great product that you're going to... How do you take this product to market? How do you launch a brand like this online?

Raja Agnani  

I think we launched with a lot of ideas. And we thought that "Alright, this is going to be great." I've got experience working with huge brands on Facebook and Instagram. 

And honestly, we launched and there was no reaction whatsoever. It was just like getting punched in the mouth. You're like, "This is gonna be huge. This is gonna be amazing." And then the reaction just wasn't there. 

And what we learned is that the number one thing, obviously in our product category is just building trust. 

And as a new brand with no reviews, nothing that proves what we're trying to claim. It was just really hard. In our product category, it was very, very difficult. 

But over time developing that trust, getting that customer feedback, getting those reviews and getting ranked by Men's Health and other PR pieces out there, it actually really helps because now it develops trust. We get reviewers, we have people who are sex experts, things like that. 

We just do honest reviews of products online and we keep on ranking, we keep on showing up. And I think over time that that trust just sort of... Really, it builds a huge halo effect around what you're trying to say. Because now, what we're saying in our ads matches. 

When people land on our website, it matches. If they search for us, they look for us on Amazon, all across the board, the reviews are great, the feedback is great, there are articles about us... 

It takes time, but developing that trust, developing that customer feedback loop, and building it up over time, it actually expands your growth over time. So it actually accelerates quite a bit. 

But the start is really, really difficult for any brand, but especially in our category. It's like, "What is going to make someone try a new kind of brand?" And to Rob's point, men, generally, if you ask them about condoms, they talk about how much they hate them. 

But are they really going to switch a brand that's worked for them for 5 years, 10 years? They really haven't had any issues. 

That leap of faith, that takes a little bit more work on our side building and developing trust and developing a reputation for making quality products.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now in that launching phase and getting things off the ground? Are there any mistakes that you made? Anything that comes to mind that you kind of want to be like, "Hey, don't do this."

Rob Seo  

I think... Yes, we made a lot of mistakes or just... I don't know if they're mistakes. They're just things that we just didn't do as well as we could have or should have. And I think that's... 

You just have to see it as a learning process. And because you have your first website and you have no idea if it's gonna convert. You think it converts and will convert, but you have no idea. And I think it's just the process. Understanding what they are looking for... 

"What is the customer looking for to get that conversion rate from 0.25 to 5% to 7%?" now for us. So that's a learning process. 

I don't think that we could feel confident about what we're doing right now, if we didn't do all those things before, because you have to try different things in order to feel confident and understand what you're doing right versus what you're doing wrong. 

So I think, at least my advice would just be there's no real right and wrong, it's just are you heading in the right direction and do you have the right mindset and mentality? versus, "Hey, do this. Do that. Tactics."  because it's just a learning process.

Raja Agnani  

Also, I think, with the website, that's probably the biggest one where we launched thinking, "We have a website that's a work of art." And realistically, it just didn't convert. 

And so understanding those steps that it takes and kind of like, you know, listening to podcasts like yours, even in finding out like, "Hey, it's not the brand that has the most beautiful website that's converting the best". 

And actually, what matters to us is to convert the best as we're building a business. And so you do things that maybe aesthetically and you're like, "I don't know why, this is something that would help." But in reality, "Hey, it helps." 

We had a really funny, GIF, GIF when we first launched our website. The first thing you saw, was this very entertaining, I would say, GIF.

And the thing is, like, people would look at it and then bounce, just repeatedly bounce. And we're like "Man, but this is so funny, where do we include it?" 

And to this day, we haven't figured out where to include or how to include it [or to] bring it back, but once we removed it our conversion rate went up. And that's what mattered at the time.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And, and I am thankful that you shared and came back to me with... They weren't really mistakes, they were learning opportunities. And I think that just instills... 

It's like, just make a decision. Because what that says is it doesn't... You're not gonna ruin your business by making the wrong decision. [You're] just gonna learn from it and you're gonna correct it.

Rob Seo  

Yeah. 

Raja Agnani  

Yeah. 

Rob Seo  

It's a process. It's not like," Hey, you put something out there and then. boom. That's it." 

No, you should be working on it and iterating and learning and just getting... Improving on it all the time. That's the approach that we take... 

Raja Agnani  

Yeah.

Rob Seo  

...to what we're doing.

Raja Agnani  

And I think as an entrepreneur, your brand feels like your baby, and you don't want to do things that are going to ruin your brand or affect your brand. 

But realistically, unless you're Nike, Apple, those types of brands, every little thing you do isn't going to reach the masses at this point. You have the ability... 

That's your main advantage against these massive companies is your speed and your ability to iterate and try different things. 

Because it's much more difficult for the incumbents to try those types of things or do those types of things. They're slower moving. 

So if you don't move faster, you have no advantage as a startup. So we have to start somewhere. 

And Chase, to your point, we have to just choose an answer, knowing that we might have to change it in a week, we might have to change it in a day, if things didn't go in the direction we wanted. 

But we have the ability to do that. And we have a mindset that says "We're going to make those changes as quickly as we need to in order to get things going in the right direction."

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Is there anything that I forgot to ask you about today that you think would resonate with our audience?

Rob Seo  

I have something. I think the brand is like a representation of you.And I think you have to think about or you should think about or maybe I should think about how to present myself. 

There are times, let's say, when we have an ad and people comment on them, there are definitely very inappropriate comments that come in, that are just not…

I would love to respond to them in a very mean way --let's just put it that way-- but I just hold back. And because it's... The brand is a representation of who you are. And I'm like... And that actually helps me be a better person. 

Because I'm like, "Maybe I just don't need to engage with everybody. And I think that's definitely helped. But always think of the brand as you. And in terms of... 

But on the other side, what are your strengths? And because that's what you want to play off for your brand. As a founder in a very early stage product and brand, it's going to take on who you are. 

So you have to understand, "But what are your strengths? And how can you impart that onto the brand so that people are just going to like it?" 

And I think that's something to think about. So understand, what are your negatives that you don't want to get out there? What are the positives that you do want to get out there? Because that is a reflection of you.

Chase Clymer  

Raja, anything to add?

Raja Agnani  

No, man. I think for us, it's really just about building trust and the relationship with the customers is everything. 

So to Rob's point, those comments they make, they make a big difference. And you have to hold back, you have to be measured in your responses and understand that you're building this for not for the immediate clap back, the clout you get from that clap back, that sort of thing. Although we do that a fair amount, sometimes. 

But I think that we're really just building this for the next 5-10 years, and seeing how we can develop this brand into something that lives outside of us as well. 

So it's something that… Having the mentality that, "Hey, we're not in this for just a quickie. (laughs) We're actually in this for the long haul."

Rob Seo  

I think the other side... Not to say that every comment that we get is terrible. I think that's an exaggeration.

Actually, most of our comments are great. And I think that's actually what helped us build our brand. 

Because our interactions with people who have fun comments and then just kind of building that rapport is what made them say, "Hey, this is a cool brand." or just "These people, I could actually trust them because I'm interacting with them." 

And building that relationship is what made them make that purchase, and take that kind of leap of faith to say, "I'm going to try a new condom."

And then that's what started this whole ball rolling down the hill. So I think that's... It's like knowing that, "Hey..." 

I think I'm saying, "Alright, I'm not going to respond to this one. But I will respond to that one." 

And that's actually led to a lot of positive things for us. And I think that's what... Yeah, I think that's one thing that I think people should keep in mind.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, for the people that are curious, where should they go to actually check out the product and the website that we've been talking about?

Raja Agnani  

You could go to psgoodtimes.com.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Thank you guys so much for coming on today.

Raja Agnani  

Thank you, Chase. 

Rob Seo  

Yeah. Thanks for having us. It's been great. 

Chase Clymer  

Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. 

We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have.

Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.