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Optimizing a Very Unique Business with Johnathan Ruggiero - Honest Ecommerce Ep.137

Johnathan Ruggiero knows about taking risks and reaping the benefits. One of his biggest gambles: meeting a woman on an online dating service. That decision paid off, and that woman, Michelle Luchese, is now his wife and business partner. 

The duo are co-founders of Manly Bands, the eight-figure DTC company that is shaking up the wedding industry with its unique rings, great customer service and overall fun experience. But the road to success wasn’t exactly smooth. 

Ruggiero had a career in Hollywood, going from freelance cameraman to supervising producer, but after ten years at the same job, he felt stagnant. 

He also had entrepreneurial pursuits, starting a few companies - some thrived, others did okay, and a few outright failed, as often happens in the entrepreneurial learning phase. 

Ruggiero’s desire to run his own business never went away and became stronger than ever. After Luchese lost her job in Los Angeles, he put in his two-weeks and the two moved to Florida where they got married and made yet another big decision: what to do next. 

Inspiration struck when they discussed his horrible experience buying a wedding ring and they decided to start Manly Bands. They started slow, running the business out of their rented garage. 

With help from friends and family, Ruggiero built the website and started advertising on Facebook with just $20 a day. 

In only a few short years, under Ruggiero’s direction, the company is now an eight figure powerhouse in the men's jewelry industry. 

Having moved the business to Utah, they are always adding new rings, new staff, and new goals for the future of Manly Bands. 

John is constantly innovating to see how far Manly Bands can grow and how else Manly Bands can reach its customers in unique ways. 

In This Conversation We Discuss: 

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [00:57] Unconventional ring materials
  • [02:32] John’s journey to founding a business
  • [04:15] How the idea for Manly Bands was conceived
  • [06:26] The common motivation among founders
  • [07:42] The starting experience of Manly Bands
  • [11:13] Go-to-market strategy and the first months
  • [12:42] You have to always re-iterate
  • [14:08] What would John change in the past?
  • [16:33] Relying on agency too soon 
  • [17:50] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [18:10] Sponsor: Mesa getmesa.com/honest
  • [19:04] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.io/honest
  • [19:39] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [21:08] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [22:16] Taking control of your overall experience
  • [23:24] Pick one strategy and stick with it
  • [24:53] How to approach “being everywhere”
  • [25:42] One of John’s biggest mistakes 
  • [27:09] How Manly Band’s channels were added
  • [28:41] The process of adding channels
  • [30:08] Where to find John and Manly Bands


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Johnathan Ruggiero  

It's all about learning. And all of that data, whether it's positive or negative, is super valuable.

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. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And today we're welcoming to the show, Johnathan from Manly Bands. How are you doing today, Jonathan? 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

I'm doing great. Thanks for having me, Chase. 

Chase Clymer  

All thanks for being here. So for people that aren't in the know, let's just quickly dive in. What is the product? What are you guys up to? What are you selling?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

So Manly Bands, we sell the most badass wedding rings on earth with everything from your traditional precious jewelry all the way up to the meteorite, wood, deer antler, and dinosaur bone.

Chase Clymer  

 Dinosaur bone? I have to ask. How do you... I feel like that's hard to get hold off?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

(laughs) It can be But first, let me tell you, it's cruelty free. We don't kill any dinosaurs to get this dinosaur bone. It's perfectly fine with PETA and all the other organizations. And I hope some of your viewers laughed at that joke. I say it all the time. And nobody ever laughs. 

So hopefully, hopefully this was a first. But no. But there are suppliers out there. And it's interesting because the dinosaur bone itself actually comes from museums. 

So when they are putting together the dinosaurs, skeletons, and they are testing out the bones and doing different scientific things to them. There always are little shavings of dinosaur bones. So what happens is that it typically gets thrown out. 

But now with suppliers, you're able to get some of that and it's authentic. And we put it in our rings. People love it.

Chase Clymer  

That is the epitome of that saying of "sell your sawdust". And in this case, it's dinosaur bone dust, because if you have a quantity of it, there's someone out there that can figure out how to use it. 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

It's true. It's true. And you know, the really cool thing is like all the wedding rings we sell,  they have a story. They're unique. They're different. 

And I think that's what guys want ultimately, it's something that's significant not only because it's their wedding and it marks their commitment to each other, but also something that has a cool material, that has a history to it. 

And you know, in this case, they're hundreds of millions of years old. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. I mean, that is one of the more unique materials that I've ever discussed on the show. So that's super cool. So let's... Take me back. 

Take me back to before starting the brand, before the RV trip, your career in Hollywood, when did you decide to make the leap? What was the series of events?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

It's been an interesting journey. I'm actually a filmmaker first. I went to film school at Emerson in Boston, moved out to Los Angeles after graduation to become the next Steven Spielberg as all filmmaking majors do. 

Of course, it's a lot harder in Los Angeles than they tell you in film school to break in and start a career. 

But I was fortunate to do a couple of freelance gigs the first couple years out there. I had some great great jobs editing a couple small movies and music videos, things like that. 

I ended up producing a bunch of stuff and found my way to realize that "Boy, it would be good to have a steady job." 

Because anybody who's a freelancer or even as you're starting your own business, having a consistent and stable revenue stream or income stream can be difficult. 

And when you live in a major city that's super expensive, like Los Angeles, you quickly realize that a job is nicer than freelance work. 

So I was fortunate enough through some connections to get a job at Getty Images, where I worked as a supervisor/producer for red carpet events, movie premieres, film festivals, and things like that for about 10 years. 

And while there, I cut my chops on some side gigs here and there, learning marketing, web design, and dived into the entrepreneurship journey at that time. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. And so one thing that I think a lot of listeners always struggle with is they want to be an entrepreneur, they want to go out on their own, and coming up with the idea is usually something that's super difficult for them. So how did you... What was your process? How did you stumble upon this concept?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Well, it's funny, I get asked that a lot. And I think the first thing to realize is it never happens right away.

I can't tell you how many ideas we've had along the way that didn't make it, didn't go anywhere --that we spent a ton of time trying to grow - and get to work and they just didn't. And we lost a lot of money along the way. 

And it's a learning process. I think I forgot the quote. But I know that there's been a lot of people who've said something along these lines where success does not happen overnight.

Obviously, there's a million failures along the way. And that's definitely the case here. 

So we're grateful that Manly Bands took off. It was a combination of all of our knowledge and experience, from all the other things that we tried to do that didn't work out. 

So, in the case of Manly Bands, it really was a journey where we tried to solve a problem that we understood because we had the problem. 

So my wife, Michelle, and I, we sat down and said, "Okay, we just moved to Florida from Los Angeles." We were taking a break, we got married, and we said, "Okay, let's go to Florida and see what we can do there. 

Just take a break and get away from Los Angeles for a little bit." And we said, "Okay well, we need income. So what are we going to do?" 

And at first, we thought it was going to be real estate photography. We had a whole setup. I had some experience in photography from my days at Getty. And we were going to do that. 

And Michelle was going to help me with marketing and just the overall shooting of the homes and things of that nature. 

And we quickly found out that the realtors, at least in the area where we were...They were shooting house photos on their iPhone. They didn't really see the value in hiring a professional photographer and drones and all that stuff. 

So understanding that we realized, "Okay, we need to plan B." And in our case, we said, "Okay. Well, let's try to solve a problem that we understand." And so that really led us to my experience with buying a wedding ring.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. It's funny. You're not the first that said "I had a million ideas." 

And the one thing that I see in common with a lot of these conversations is they're like, "It happened to me. And I just realized that it shouldn't be this hard."

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Yeah. No, it's true. It's true. And then that's why when it came time to figure out what we wanted to do, we said, "Let's just make it personal. Let's make it something that we care about. Let's make it something we really understand." 

Because in the past, we had this... We'd rack our brains. My business partner at the time. He's now our CTO and he's just... We both were just... We tried so hard to come up with an idea. 

We'd rack our brains for hours. We're like, "Alright, we can do bracelets. Or we could... Hey, what about this? What about that?" And we would just come up with random ideas, that wouldn't necessarily be something that we loved. 

And I think that makes it harder when you're trying to create a product or a service, when you don't really have a passion for it. Because entrepreneurship is all about long hours and stress and trying to figure things out. 

And I think, if it's something you at least appreciate, like, and can identify with, it makes that journey just a little bit easier. And ultimately we found that didn't work when we were trying to do the previous ideas. 

But with Manly Bands, because we understood it and connected with it, it worked out a little bit better.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Alright, so you have stumbled across this idea? And how did you get started? What does that look like?

I think a lot of people get caught up in the, "I gotta get an LLC set up. And I got to get a bank account... How did it actually get started?"

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Well, that is definitely part of the process. You want to make sure you're legal and compliant and all that good stuff so it doesn't cause problems later. 

But for us, we first wanted to figure out: "Okay, what type of product are we making? Who's our audience? Why are we going to be going into this type of product or this industry? And how are we going to do something different and unique enough that it'll stand out from the competition?" 

Because there's always going to be competition? How are we different? How are our customers going to appreciate us? 

So the first thing we did was discuss, "Okay, what were the problems that are making us want to even do this?" So we said, "Okay, what was our wedding ring's story?" 

And we reviewed it. And it was the same as a lot of men out there. They go into a jewelry store with their future wife. And in my case, I have large fingers. And I went into a jeweler, he couldn't size me because the size there only went up to size 12. 

And he also told me, "Hey, there's our little case of rings on the back of the store. Go pick one from over there. And maybe I can order your size and it'll be here in a couple of weeks." 

And so there are a couple of problems with that. I go to the back of the store. And literally there were 5 or 6 rings. There was a gold one, a silver one and a black one... And I'm like, "I don't even know what I'm doing. I don't wear jewelry. I don't know what size I am". 

And these are all boring rings. I wasn't excited and I remember looking over to Michelle and she had several cases of options. 

And she's super excited. She's like, "Oh, I can do diamonds or I can do this or then there's this one that's curved funny. 

And this one has cool material on it." And I just felt a little left out. I'm like "The wedding ring experience really isn't designed for guys. You go in there and you're such an afterthought.” 

Nevermind the fact that the rings are also super expensive also even for a simple design. So it was just a bad experience all around and I ended up going online and just buying from some random no name site that didn't have a warranty. 

The ring literally came in a little plastic bag, that little baggie. It wasn't in a box. There was no receipt. There was no customer service, It was just like, "Wow, this is my wedding ring. This is supposed to be something I'm wearing the rest of my life. And here I am." 

And it's just like something else I'm ordering offline. So it was a... We talked about that  and we realized, "Wow, this could really... We could innovate this area with just some common sense, some customer service and things like that". 

And so we put our heads together and we said, "Alright, let's do this." And so I had some skills, like I mentioned, in web design and marketing. My wife is just super creative. 

She was an actor in Hollywood. And it was the thing where she had all these great ideas for descriptions and names. And it just kind of made the brand a little different. And it helps our customers identify with the ring. 

So instead of it being "8 mm Cobalt Chrome Ring'',  it was like The Savant or The Hero. And I think it just made the buying experience a little different than what you get at a regular jewelry store. So we just took that concept, and built it up, and ran with it. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So you've got the website up and running. What was the go-to-market strategy? What was the launch strategy? What did the first week of the first month look like?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Yeah, for sure. So in the first month, it was all about building the infrastructure for the site, trying to find various suppliers that Michelle could then design some rings that were unique to us. 

Because doing competitive research, we saw some of the other stuff that was out there. And it wasn't that dissimilar from what you would see in a regular jewelry store. And we knew we wanted something different to stand out a little bit. 

So she worked with them initially. And we came up with a whole workflow on how the orders would be placed and what materials we were going to use while I was working on the creative side of things and the website side. 

Built that out on Shopify, took photos of the rings once we got the samples in. And it just built out our customer service policies and things like that, and put it all together. 

And then slowly started testing creative and ads using Facebook and then keyword ads on Google and just slowly moved forward. And then I'd say probably 2 or 3 weeks later, we got our first sale. 

And we were like, "Oh, this is interesting. Let's see what happens the next day." And we got another sale. 

And then a couple days later, we had two sales. And we just started trying to improve the process. And we said, "Okay, now what can we do to continually improve, and iterate, and optimize?"

Chase Clymer  

There's so much there that I want to call out. The first is you just went live and you just kept doing the thing over and over until it worked. It didn't work immediately, which is something I want to highlight to all the listeners that are scared to get started. 

It's not going to happen immediately. If it does, congratulations, I guess? You're one of the lucky ones. And then the concept of constant iteration. 

You have been doing this for quite a while now. Yeah. Do you feel like your website's done? Is it perfect? 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Oh, no. It's never done. Yeah. (laughs) There's all of those... 

Chase Clymer  

I knew the answer. 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

(laughs) No, of course. No, there's always room to improve. Our tech team, Scott --our CTO and my business partner in the past-- is just a genius and is always looking to improve everything. 

So he would never settle even if we felt like things were amazing. He will be like, "Well, we can do this. And we should try this". And  just this past week, his team --him, Zach, and Arthur... It's a small development team we have in-house but they are just amazing. 

And they sped up our website 10 times what it was before by doing some sort of headless technology thing. 

And then [I was] like, "Well, I don't even know what this means anymore. But man, it's awesome". 

So yeah, it's a... Entrepreneurship is a journey. It's not instant success ever. And in our case, it wasn't. In the beginning, it took time. 

And certainly, we tried other things that didn't work either. But yeah, it takes time. And if you're not constantly improving, it's probably not going to work in the long run.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So is there anything that stands out to you that you would wish you had a time machine and go back in time and say "Johnathan, don't do that?" 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Oh lots of things? Relating to the business? (laughs)

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. Just typically the business. 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Oh okay. Well, that's a mildly shorter list. But not really. Off the top of my head?.. In the beginning, there was a time after the first month or so where we were like "Okay, let's let's hire an agency. Let's do this. Let's get a 3PL." 

And all this faster growth stuff. And we were trying to get ahead of the curve or what we thought success would look like. 

And it ended up that we were doing it a little too soon. And I think I had read "Hey, the things on a 3PL. So you can focus on this." 

Well, the problem was, as you know, the 3PL we went with was horrible and it is a huge waste of resources and very expensive. And you just have a lot of time to get set up. And then it didn't work. 

And it took our focus away from probably what is the most important part of a business, I think, especially an online business. And that's making sure that you have incredible... An incredible product and incredible customer service. 

The marketing, shipping times, returns and exchanges, those are all super important. But that's not as important as making sure that you initially have a high quality product and that you're taking care of your customers. 

And so we realized that very shortly thereafter and made sure to go back and make sure that was all taken care of before we started crazy expansion plans. But it was a bit of an eye opener because it just became very stressful in the beginning when we were trying to do those things. 

And I think, at least on the marketing side, another thing I would say would be: You have to get in there and understand your audience. 

And in doing that audience research and really, really knowing their personas and how you're targeting them and things like that is just critical. 

And in the beginning, we were just guessing. We're like, "Well, if I were to buy this ring, I probably would live in a city and that would have an income of x. And I might have, obviously, in a relationship." 

And it turned out it was the exact opposite, which we found out like 4 months later, it was more people who did not live in a city. it was just a very different persona than we had thought. And then our marketing improved immensely once we realized that.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely, I want to point out that you said hiring an agency too soon. That's something that I think a lot of entrepreneurs do: They come up with a good idea and then I think then agencies gonna make it work, which is a farce. That's never going to work. 

And an agency will never help you find product-market fit. An agency knows how to optimize. An agency knows how to pour gas on an existing fire. They will never be able to help you start a fire. 

There might be some really amazing consultants out there that that's what they do and they're really good at it. But I've yet to find one that I'd recommend. 

So a lot of this comes down to a founder and the small... Whoever's on that core team, it's up to you guys to really get from zero to one.

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Totally agree. And I think... Exactly. They can put gasoline on the fire, but the fire needs to be there.

And if you don't have a total understanding of your product, and your fulfillment strategies, and your manufacturing strategies, and your demographic, and your audience and all that stuff already set up, it's really hard for someone to come in and figure it out, especially when they're not as close to it as yours. 

So it's critical you have a complete understanding of your business before you start working with other companies.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, and with that all being said, once you do get that traction going, it's definitely should reach out to people smarter than you and hire the best you can afford because you'll just see the exponential growth start to happen. It's awesome. 

Johnathan Ruggiero  


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Chase Clymer  

So back to the brand. You guys.... You had this initial success. What happened in that growth phase where you guys really locked in? 

You're like, "Alright, this is working. We know what's going on here." Was there a certain thing that happened?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Well, I think it was really understanding that demographic and audience base. And then once we realized that it was super helpful to then change our content and our strategy and our creative and things like that to have it make sense to the point where we even adjusted product descriptions to lean a little bit more into that demographic. And that made a huge, huge difference. 

So once we got to that point, we felt like we had a good understanding of that. And the customer service was where we needed it to be. Because in the beginning, that's where we really invested the most resources: It was customer service and marketing. 

And then once that was dialed in, then we started working on overall customer experience, not just customer service, but the overall experience. So packaging, fulfillment times, shipping times, and things like that.

Chase Clymer  

What I'm hearing now with learning about the customer persona and really diving in on that is you found what worked and you doubled down on it instead of trying another strategy.

And that's what I want to highlight to the listeners: When you find what works, go all in. It's not time to find another strategy to half-ass. Run that initial strategy until you can't grow it anymore.

Johnathan Ruggiero  

I totally agree. Yeah,  that's really the key. Once you dial that in and you understand your customer base, there's just so many different things you can do by using that as the foundation and then growing on it. 

So if we're talking Facebook, you can layer in different interest groups that are in your foundation. So there's all sorts of places to find your customers, whether it's on Google, Facebook, Pinterest. We're everywhere now. 

We're even running TV ads, which has been very eye opening just to see where the most successful markets are for us like demographically, which only further helps us identify the demographic and dial that in. 

And I think, as you do more and more marketing, and you're seeing success --or even not having success-- it's all about learning. And all of that data, whether it's positive or negative, is super valuable because it should always define how you adjust your marketing plans and how you change the course of your business based on what people are responding to. 

So I totally agree once you have that dialed in, definitely start to grow from it. But keep learning too because you may find other things that just further optimize your campaigns and your strategy.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So you mentioned that you guys are "everywhere now". You weren't at the beginning. So how is that approach? 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Yeah, so in the beginning, it was Facebook and Google. And Google, it was just like keyword searches. It wasn't Google Shopping or Display or anything like that. 

And yeah, mostly it was Facebook. We've always found Facebook drives the most traffic. But Google, of course, has a better conversion rate, because it's an intent-based platform.

So, it was a combination of the 2. We'd run branding campaigns, keyword campaigns on Google, and then prospecting and remarketing campaigns over on Facebook. And that's what really grew the business for probably 3 years or so. 

We're about 6 years old now. And I'd say the first half of our evolution was pretty simple. And still today, Google and Facebook are definitely the largest platforms that we use. But one of the biggest mistakes --to go back to your mistake question-- is email marketing. 

And another that's a mistake. It's not doing email marketing. That's the mistake. Because I was managing most of the marketing and was just... It was really Michelle, and I, and 1 or 2 other people in the first year. 

And then we slowly started bringing on other remote staff to help us out in the years thereafter. 

But because it was me in the beginning, it's a lot to do. And I understood the value of email, but I just didn't have the time. And eventually, I saw the light and said, "You know, we really need to be doing email marketing." 

And so we put a program together and started working with some outside help to get that going. And we weren't doing anything beyond the normal. You get your receipt via email. 

And I think we had an abandoned cart Shopify app that was helping us out with the abandoned cart emails. 

But in terms of just sending out new product drops, or sending out just information about the company, or even capturing email, --not from customers-- but just capturing like a pop up to get people to leave an email for their discount code or something. 

We haven't done that. And let me tell you, that is a huge mistake. If you're not capturing an email list, you are definitely not doing everything you can to grow your business. Because right now email, I think, points to something like 15%-20% of our revenue. And it's massively important. So I would definitely recommend that. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So just going back to the iterations on which channels you're using, was it... A very leading question here, but I'm assuming it was starting with Facebook and Google and then you added just one more at a time.

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Yeah, we started slow because it was just a small team managing it. Now we have a much larger team. And we're like I was saying, we're trying everything more of an omnichannel approach

But beyond the beginning, so Facebook, Google, then we had an email. And we experimented with Snapchat and Pinterest, it didn't really work out back then.

And now we're doing Pinterest more and it's working. And then we moved on. We added Bing. Then we added display ads. 

We use services like Criteo and Steelhouse. For a while. Now we're using Verizon Media, which is a great display partner of ours. Taboola doing some of that native content. It took us a while to get into that. 

But we found that it works really well for remarketing, if done right. And then we've now grown into podcasts and television as well. 

So we're always trying to be where our customers are. And that also goes back to understanding your demographic. If your customers are on podcasts, then you need to be advertising on podcasts. 

Our customers watch TV --most customers-- so we want to be on TV. 

So it's all about growing that channel where the demographic is really present. And then we have a policy here where we put most of those profits back into those channels. So we can continue to scale it up.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Yeah. So the highlight of that whole conversation is find the channels that work and hone in on them, optimize them. 

And then when you have some time, add one at a time. Hone in and optimize, or it may not work and then just toss it aside and try a new one. But if you add 3 or 4 channels at once, it's gonna just be a bad time.

Johnathan Ruggiero  

It is. Yeah, I totally agree with that. Because really, it takes time to optimize each channel. And if you have 3 or 4 going the way you want to look at it is as a holistic thing. Because attribution is still really difficult today, especially with all the iOS changes...

Chase Clymer  

Even more difficult today than it was 3 months ago.

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Even more difficult. Right. Right. It's crazy. So it's important to do one at a time, otherwise, you're really not going to know which ones [are] being successful. So optimizing it will be a nightmare. 

So at least if you had one and then you see a change, you can be like, "Okay. Well, that's because of this one." Whereas if you have 3 or 4, it's really difficult. And expensive.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Well, Jonathan, I can't thank you enough for coming on the podcast today. Is there anything that I forgot to ask that you want to leave with our listeners?

Johnathan Ruggiero  

No. I hope that some of this information has been useful. And I love a lot of helping out other entrepreneurs. 

So if anybody ever wants to reach out, feel free to reach out to me. My email is john@manlybands.com and I'm happy to share my experience and offer any advice I can.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And for those of you that are in the market for a wedding ring, where should they go? 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Oh. Go ahead and check out manlybands.com

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. Get yourself a dinosaur wedding band that sounds amazing. 

Johnathan Ruggiero  

Cool. Thanks for having me, Chase. I really appreciate it. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Thanks for coming on. 

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.