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Offering Existing Brands to a Different Market with Nate Axvig - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 181

Nate Axvig grew up in frigid North Dakota and moved to sunny Colorado after graduating from law school. 

He practiced as a litigator for 16 years before moving to Oslo, Norway with his wife Leslie (also a litigator) and their two kids- Luke and Bekah. 

While living in Norway and pursuing an advanced degree in Communications and Technology Law, Nate and Leslie discovered the world class quality of Scandinavian clothing. 

That planted a seed which sprouted into aktivstyle.com, their business that brings Scandinavian clothing into the United States. 

Since its inception in 2018, Aktiv has steadily grown and expanded into a traditional brick and mortar setting at Stanley Marketplace in Denver's eastern metro area. 

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:26] The products that Aktiv offers
  • [02:53] From idea to market
  • [04:59] Cold outreach to manufacturers
  • [07:17] Advantages/disadvantages of selling existing goods
  • [09:23] Being mindful of different markets
  • [10:19] Customer acquisition for a new market introduction
  • [13:48] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [14:08] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
  • [14:52] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [15:39] Branching out into brick-and-mortar
  • [17:50] Why Aktiv did it “a little backwards”
  • [19:24] Providing a more personal experience
  • [21:08] Where to find Aktiv

Resources:

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 Transcript:

Chase Clymer  

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That will let the algorithm know that you like this content and it will help us produce more.

Nate Axvig  

We rely heavily on repeat customers because people discover something that they really like and they cannot find it [on] other places, so they hit repeat.

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.

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. 

And today [we] welcome to the show, Nate Axvig, he is one of the co-owners of Aktiv, they are an awesome brand with Norwegian influences. And we'll get into that a little bit here in a minute. How are you doing today, Nate?

Nate Axvig  

I'm doing great. How are you?

Chase Clymer  

I'm proud of myself for not confusing or switching the very similar phrasing that we were just talking about in the pre-show. 

Nate Axvig  

Yeah, good job. 

Chase Clymer  

Thank you. Thank you, I needed that today. It's a good start to the day. 

So for those that are unaware, can you just give us a little bit of an idea about the types of product that your brand brings to the market?

Nate Axvig  

Sure. So we bring in Scandinavian clothing. So the very best from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, some from Finland. We're expanding into Iceland in the fall. 

To do a quick overview my family and I lived in Oslo for over a year 2016 - 2017. And we are based in Colorado. And that's where we moved from and then back to.

And Coloradans have a very distinct way of dressing. Everybody sort of dresses for movement, it kind of looks like everybody's heading out on a hike. That's sort of the concept anyway. 

So they dress the same way in Norway. It's just completely different brands. So we did a fair bit of shopping when we were there. 

And we were just really impressed with the quality, the functionality and the look of the clothing. 

So we moved home and started putting together the idea of aktivstyle.com, which was our website, which still exists, and the first way that we brought the items to the market.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, how long was going from... You guys realized that there's these amazing products and you see a market for it in the States. 

How long did it go from like that idea to like, "We've got an actual business here."

Nate Axvig  

So we moved back in August of 2017. And the... We were over there, I'm a "recovering lawyer". That's what we call it. I was a litigator for years. 

And the reason we moved over there was to go back to school to further education in communication and technology law. Part of that is... 

Ecommerce is a big part, obviously, of the law of the internet. So we would be sitting in these coffee houses in Oslo and just seeing this parade of clothing worn by Norwegians. And that... And it started as a joke that we could... "We could do this. We could bring this clothing in." 

Like I said, we did some shopping and we returned with the goods. And we did some searches for the brands. 

And this is one of them right here, Amundsen, that we fell in love with and they were hard to find in the United States. So that was sort of... We rounded the corner on the idea. And then with... 

We created an email address and I basically sent cold emails to the brands that we were interested in. And if we had received no responses, then that would have been the end of the story. 

But we received a lot of positive feedback from these brands. And they tend to be a little smaller. And the US market is so huge that it's intimidating for a company that's 50 people so they can't... 

There's no way they can ramp up to produce enough to go in with a big partner. So this was sort of interesting to them to come in with a smaller brand, where we weren't ordering a ton, and just test the market to see if Americans were interested.

Chase Clymer  

Now I need to point out to the listeners, with a lot of our interviews, the founders are creating a brand and they are actually creating the product themselves. And what I want to differentiate here is that you... 

You are not creating the products. You are sourcing the products to a new market, which is a very interesting angle to take, which I believe worked out very well for you if we want to jump ahead to the end. 

But so reaching out to these brands with cold emails, what advice would you give to an entrepreneur out there that might want to do something similar? What should they expect? And how should they approach it?

Nate Axvig  

What to expect is there... You're gonna get rejected for sure. You have a brand. We have a concept that we are that we're bringing to market.

And all of these other companies --and we have 34 that we carry right now-- they all have their own concept of their brand. So sometimes you have to... They have to... 

And sometimes they're in sync. A lot of times they aren't. So I can tell you, I think it was effective. 

Honesty and if there's a true origin to your idea, to spell that out in a succinct manner is the, I think, the best approach. 

I think, entrepreneurial spirit usually comes from an experience that the person has had, whether it's positive or negative, and whether it's they've seen a market for something or they have a product that they think can move into the market. And ours is a little bit of both. We do... 

Obviously, we think that these products are some of the best clothing made in the world. And they're built for the long haul, and sustainable, and everything that we find important about a product in 2022. But they also... 

They work and they look nice, and people enjoy them. And one of our goals is in most people's closets, they have like 2 or 3 items that are their favorite, that they were the most. We want to be the people that sell you those things. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, what would you say are the advantages of building a business with already established goods. And then the immediate follow up just so you're anticipating it is what would be the disadvantages of that similar thing?

Nate Axvig  

So the advantages are obviously you are piggybacking on the market testing and years of product development done by other people. So that's... 

Chase Clymer  

A little bit of a shortcut...

Nate Axvig  

That is positive, but it can be a negative too because while Americans and Western Europeans are very similar, there are differences. 

And one example is when it comes to jackets or shells, Europeans love the anorak style, which is a pull over your head kind of style. Americans don't like that. Americans like a zipper. So that's a big... 

It seems like it wouldn't be a big deal but it is a big deal. Because if you have a $500 shell that you're going to buy and it doesn't have the zipper that you want, you're not going to buy it. 

So we give feedback and are interested in an expansion of things with zippers. And the brands are cordial enough to listen to us. 

Sometimes we see some of our requests roll out in a new product, most of the time we don't and that's fine. 

The other thing that is really nice with dealing with Scandinavian companies is they do enjoy the interaction. The back and forth. And they are... 

Their goal is certainly to sell their clothing. But really, their overarching goal is to create the best product available. 

So when you have that as your goal, then you seek input from various sources that maybe sometimes other companies don't.

Chase Clymer  

And now a very basic question would be when you're thinking about ordering and you have to be  mindful of the differences between the markets... 

But is it a little bit easier when they're like, "Well, this thing's a best seller." And you're like, "Well, that makes it easier for me to know that we should probably invest a bit in some more of those."

Nate Axvig  

It is, although just because it's the best seller in their home market doesn't mean it's going to be the best seller here. 

Chase Clymer  

Mm-hmm.

Nate Axvig  

There are. I pick out every item that we bring into the store, and they're meant to be at various price points. But again, we... 

The goal is to have that coveted position in your closet as your go-to piece. So a lot of what we bring in has that concept behind it. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So with the brand, you guys opted to start an online store before venturing into brick and mortar, which I'm going to have some questions about that in a bit. What were…

How did you go about acquiring your first couple customers? And what were the challenges in that to try to sell these foreign brands stateside?

Nate Axvig  

Well, the challenge is that in the digital marketplace, there's so much noise. There's... It is hard to differentiate yourself, so you did it the old fashioned way. 

Obviously, we have a good support group of friends and family that were our first customers, I think that's pretty much every small business story.

And then you hope that they have a good experience and they bring up the brand in casual conversation. 

From a marketing marketing perspective, we have tried influencers and doing paid ads on the Metaverse and whatnot with varying to lesser degrees of success. 

From our perspective, word of mouth, obviously, is just the best but it's not something that you can really... That's on somebody else, not on you. 

Obviously, you're putting a good product out and you can control that, but you can't control who speaks about you when. 

So where we've had our best success is through traditional media, which is a dated concept, or at least it's thought that way. And so there are several things that work for us. 

One, there is a fascination with the Scandinavian countries throughout the United States, whether it's the aesthetic or economic system, a lot of --including mine-- heritage comes from that part of the world. 

And so we've seen customer clusters in places where you would expect from a heritage perspective: Seattle, and where I'm from North Dakota and Minnesota, very strong ties to Scandinavia. And then you have the philosophical mirroring. 

So the upper upper northeast, New England, Vermont, New Hampshire, we get a lot of customers from there, because they... One, the climate is very similar to Norway and the philosophy is... 

They're out in nature, they're hiking, biking, trudging through the woods, and they need the right kind of gear for that. So that's sort of where we found ourselves. And then you also discover strange things like COVID pushed everybody outside. 

And that meant from a working out perspective. Your gym was closed. So if you wanted to get cardio and you had to run, whether it was raining or windy or whatever. 

So in the fall of 2020, we could not keep in stock a women's when running wind pants day, we would sell everyone that we got it. And so that some circumstances helped us out.

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Chase Clymer  

[With the] success of the online shop, you guys pivoted into launching a brick-and-mortar store. What advice would you have for brands about making that decision?

Nate Axvig  

Well, again, circumstances led the way for us. We were less than 2 years old when the shop I'm in right now, --which is a 5-minute bike ride from my-- house , had a vacancy during COVID. 

And so our long-term plan was always to start a brick-and-mortar. We think that while Ecommerce is a great way to reach every corner of the world, there are some things like this wool sweater that I have on that I can't... 

I can describe things all day, but the only way to really get a sense of it is to try it on. 

Chase Clymer  

Mm-hmm.

Nate Axvig  

And the only way to do that is a brick-and-mortar, so... But with COVID ,the economics of brick-and-mortar and the leverage that a company that was going to lease some space had was what changed. Beforehand... 

And it wasn't necessarily the rates, it was just the expectation that you would sign a 5-year lease, which is pretty much what it was before. 

There was more latitude given to the company. So we could try it for a couple of years and not feel like we were latched to the storefront. In the end, it's been a great decision for us. 

The marketplace that we're in, fits our philosophy really well. The people that [it] draws are folks that are interested in something a little different so that... 

And that's what we are. So it's been a good move for us, certainly. But it was faster than I expected.

Chase Clymer  

Now, is there anything I didn't ask you about today that you think would resonate with our audience?

Nate Axvig  

I think that we did it a little bit backwards. Most people that have a storefront and are in Ecommerce, start the storefront first and then move towards the Ecommerce as a secondary. And that's… 

We did the opposite mostly because we... [Being] brutally honest, while we love the stuff, we didn't know [if] we were going to sell any of it... Like I was... There was a concern. 

We ran it out of our house and a storage facility. The worst case scenario was that I was going to have hundreds and hundreds of sweaters that we just never moved. And that's not what happened, obviously. But ecommerce is such a... 

The part I love about it is the risk is limited. And you can make it your own, your very own. So our website is something that we take a lot of time to care for. 

And we hope that it expresses the aesthetic that we're putting forth in the market - that the Scandinavian style is something that is noteworthy. So no, I think you touched on everything.

Chase Clymer  

I think the barrier of entry for Ecommerce is a lot lower, the risk is a lot lower, and you can get feedback a lot faster.

Nate Axvig  

We are niche. We are not REI, that's not us. So if you... And it's... We actually... We have to put ourselves out into the marketplace. 

And then when people find us --and this is true for most small businesses-- we rely heavily on repeat customers because people discover something that they really like and they cannot find it in other places. So we... They hit repeat, which is great.

And then what we like to do is have conversations with people. Whether that's in person in the store, or email, or chat or whatever, we want to... 

Before we started this business, we were really good consumers. And we did a lot of shopping and we know what we want out of a store, which is different from the big box experience. We want it to be a little more personal. 

And because I mean, we have 2 employees. We all sort of live in the clothes. So if you're looking for advice, we can get it specifically because we are in the clothes all the time. And that's something that we... Expertise in the retail setting is inconsistent. So we want... 

That's something that we want to push to the forefront. And we want people to feel like there's a human on the other side. So if they send an email, we want to respond quickly and not in a vague way, but answer the questions. 

Chase Clymer  

Now if you pique somebody's interest about the products, where should they go? 

Nate Axvig  

So our website is A-K-T-I-V-S-T-Y-L-E.com. So aktivstyle

If you're in Denver, in the Denver Metro, come to the Stanley marketplace. We are here every day. 

And it's a great place to grab some lunch or beer and do some shopping. And if people have questions about anything, our email addresses are all over the website. 

But I'm nate@aktivstyle.com. Drop me a line. If there are things... And we sell items to people who are hiking, biking... 

The big thing that we are dealing with now is I think as we emerge from this sort of COVID fog, a lot of people are taking trips that have been put off 2 or 3 times. 

So and COVID has done various things to people's physique. So they may need new things. They may have gotten in great shape or they may have gone the other way.

And so we're getting a lot of requests for people going on bucket lists sort of trips. And they want to have the right kind of gear. 

And Scandinavians are travelers for one. So a lot of our items are built for compact use, changing weather, rain, wind, all that good stuff.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. We'll make sure to link to all that stuff in the show notes. Nate, thank you so much for coming on today.

Nate Axvig  

You bet. Have a good day. 

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.