On this podcast, we talk about how Win Brands Group scales businesses using a holding company strategy, the challenge of acquiring good talent, why Amazon is a necessary part of an omnichannel strategy, and so much more!
Kyle is the founder and CEO of Win Brands Group, an omnichannel retail platform that buys and builds category-defining brands.
Win’s enviable stable of brands includes Homesick (scented candles and home fragrance), QALO (silicone wedding rings and accessories), Gravity (the original weighted blanket), and Love Your Melon (mission-driven outerwear).
Kyle has spent over a decade honing the art of consumer-focused venture capital and brand building, raising millions of dollars, and building businesses responsible for employing hundreds of people in the process.
His background includes working side-by-side with billionaire serial entrepreneur and branding guru J. Christopher Burch, as well as founding multiple best-in-class investment and marketing operations in the US and abroad.
Kyle holds a B.S. degree in accounting and finance from the School of Management at Syracuse University.
He and his wife split their time between New York and Sag Harbor, with their young sons, and beloved dog Gibson.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
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You've got to find a way to extract yourself and create more leverage for your time. And that's always going to be back at what you're best at.
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 Honesty Ecommerce. Today, I'm bringing to you, an amazing guest. Kyle Widrick is the founder and CEO of Win Brands Group, an omnichannel retail platform that buys and builds category-defining brands.
Kyle, you've been in the game for quite some time. Welcome to the show.
I have, Chase. Thank you. Great to be here.
Alright. So let's just... Just take me back. You've got such a fun story. Where do you want to kick it off with your foray into Ecommerce and what led you down this path?
Yeah, listen. I came at it a bit backwards. I started out investing. I worked at a family office for a bunch of years and focused on the consumer. And so we invested in a lot of consumer companies.
And I left there and I started with my partner Dylan, an agency in the Shopify space called BVA Commerce. So back when folks were building on Magento, and Hybris, Demandware.
We went all in on Shopify. We only did Shopify work. This is like 2012 - 2013. So [it was] really good timing for us to build up a big agency there. We ended up selling it to a private equity firm.
And that was really the backstory and the experience that led me to founding Win Brands Group, where everyone needed more support beyond just the agency resources. And that's why we founded Win.
Absolutely, so you're a bit different than a typical founder that we have on the show.
If you don't have one brand, explain the business model a little more in depth for those that are unaware of how this strategy works.
Sure. Listen, I have the maximum amount of respect for founders that are able to stand up a brand and have success. And so what we do is we partner with those founders, after they've gotten to some critical scale. So Win Brands Group is...
The very simplest way to think about it as a big agency that sits on top of a portfolio of brands.
As you mentioned, we are Shopify First. We take Shopify brands that have done well and our intent is to really get them to a full omnichannel strategy. So add Amazon and add wholesale accounts to a product that's already working on Shopify.
So we find businesses, whether it's in the home space, like Homesick or Gravity, whether it's in the outdoor space, like QALO Accessories or Love Your Melon and we partner with those founders.
We do that by buying a majority of the business. And then on the go forward, we really partner with them to grow the business together.
So we have this big team that we plug in a lot of operational resources, where we can make their life a lot easier as we scale the business.
Yeah, so a lot of agencies come to brands, and they're like, we want to partner with you. And you know, that's probably the best approach.
But the way that you do it is real, actual partnership with blended resources. And some of these people on the agency team are working with only the brands that you have under that umbrella, right?
Yeah, we go all in. I'm a bit of an extreme personality. So we pick brands we really like and we go all in, meaning we are fully-partnered in that upsets. We buy a majority of the business.
Usually the founders will retain a stake in the business. So let's say 10% or 20%. But we're able to come to them and say, "Look, you've created an amazing brand. You've been at it for 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 years. You're going to need more resources to turn this into a true omnichannel business.”
“We have those resources as part of our shared team. Why don't we think about doing a deal where you take some cash off the table, take some chips, put them in your pocket, and choose us as a partner to continue to scale this with you?"
Okay, let's dive in there a bit about resources. So I'm assuming a typical brand that's doing a couple million $10 million+ or whatever, they've got just a laundry list of expenses every month.
A lot of it being partnered resources in SEO or paid media development, etc. And the way you come in is like we have all those resources in house and those expenses now go away but we also are now buying in.
Yeah, I think it's not only the resources, it's the talent level. So we are able to attract a really high talent level across the board. And again, this came out when I worked at BVA Commerce.
Some of our clients included MVMT Watches, Jake and Kramer over there, or Kylie Cosmetics. For every Kylie or MVMT there were dozens of other brands that really had great concepts and had great products, they just weren't quite able to scale to the same level.
And when you boil that down, it came to the people. And maybe they never hired a Head of Sourcing and they had a sourcing issue or they never hired a Head of 3PL/Logistics. So they ended up with an issue at their warehouse.
We've been fortunate and this is the way we built it by design. We have a big team, all of our leaders, let's say, in 3PL or in sourcing they have 10+years of experience in exactly that.
So what we can say to the founders is "Look, we can give you back some of your time. Let the team do all this bulky stuff that, frankly, is not a lot of fun to deal with. And let's get you back to doing what you're best at which is creating awesome products and figuring out ways to build community around them."
That's fantastic. So let's talk about the brands. What was the first brand that you guys brought under the umbrella?
So the first brand we bought was Homesick. And I was catching up with Ben Kaufman, who had started Homesick with Ricky and a few others.
And he had actually sold it to Buzzfeed when he joined BuzzFeed. And we were catching up and I was giving him an update on what I was up to.
And he's like, "Oh, you should buy a Homesick. This is great. BuzzFeed owns it. And it was an asset living within BuzzFeed that didn't have any people really attached to it. It was kind of a sidecar for them."
And so we came to terms, we bought that asset, and what I saw there was a really interesting backstory of selling the style show.
So you're a candle business. But you have deep nostalgia based around locations and memories that would really sell well online.
You almost didn't need to pick up the candle and smell it to be able to understand what it was about. So that aspect of it made it uniquely interesting for us.
And when we bought it, it was a Shopify only business. We quickly built a big business on Amazon with that product, with that company.
And now we're sold everywhere from Bloomingdale’s to Target, etc. at retail. So it's really about having the team to be able to expand these awesome companies across multichannel.
Absolutely. And then what were the next couple of brands that you picked up?
So Homesick was first. That's where we learned what we were doing. By the way, Homesick came to us with zero people because it was a carve out.
So we had to fill all the slots. We talk about now having our... If you want to use a sports analogy, we have a starting team.
And then every time we acquire a business, it comes to us with a whole bunch of new players. Sometimes those folks end up starting on the holdco team. So we're constantly seeing great talent come our way.
The next asset we acquired was QALO, the silicone accessory business. Ted and KC, the 2 co-founders there, had started it after spending some time in the restaurant world.
They literally just wanted to have a ring that was more comfortable to wear at the restaurant. So they made this out of silicone.
They got some early traction with sports and athletes: LeBron James, Steph Curry, Bryce Harper, all wearing this product, this brand. So [they] built a really nice base.
Again, really a Shopify business that benefited from early days on Facebook, ads being relatively cheap and things scaling well.
And so when we met them, they were at a crossroads of "Do we build a much bigger team here or do we partner with someone like Win and let them kind of take the torch from here and keep building with us?"
And we got to that point with them. A really great asset, great product.
The next one was Gravity Blankets, a leader in the weighted blanket category. A product that I had not used until we were doing diligence and loved the products.
Slept so much deeper. It was really a big impact on my life personally. So I said, these guys have something.
I decided to transact that from the founders who spun it into a media company. And then the most recent transaction was a company called Love Your Melon, and a really amazing backstory there.
Zach and Brian had built the business out of a college project and it's a hats business with a really strong focus on giving back specific to pediatric cancer.
So they've now given back over $10 million to pediatric cancer, tons of hats, and a super incredible cause-based mission.
And you know, as a byproduct of that, they built a following that's larger than Warby Parker, larger than Allbirds on social media. So people really love this brand.
And similarly, they've had a good run and built a great business but they were looking for help.
And so that's the situation that we like to find ourselves in and the partnerships that we can make with these founders.
Yeah, there's a lot of similarities between those stories you're talking about. They're looking for help or building out a team.
Let's just talk about how difficult it is to find good people and build a good team and how valuable that is to just be like, "We're plug and play over here. Let's go."
It's so hard. We just had our all hands (meeting), our town hall yesterday, and we're now 100 people and it's tough.
So I mean, the best part of our model here is we can take the best people that they've been able to find and bring into their brand and welcome them into the broader Win team, either at the wholesale level or at the brand level. And it's tough for us. We're constantly recruiting.
We just won, fortunately, "Best Places to Work" again. We really try to invest in our people. I tell everyone, our brands, our tagline, there would be "The customers are the business."
How we feed that customer, how we keep that customer back, coming back, that is our business. At the Win level, our people are our business.
And we've had to navigate that through a COVID time where it's really difficult to find interesting ways to engage without getting together in person. But it is tough out there now to find good talent across the board.
Oh yeah, it's highly competitive. It's the wild west out there. Just on the agency side finding good talent, whether full time or contractor it's just...
Sometimes you just don't know until you get into a project and start working with some people, too. It's interesting.
100%. And it's an interesting time, because there's so much opportunity in these channels. But it's gotten so noisy, and everything's so specific.
You can be a tremendous marketer direct on Shopify and literally have no clue what you're doing on Amazon.
Oh absolutely. We say that every time someone's like, "Oh, do you guys do Amazon?" They're like "No. I know it exists. It's where my socks [are bought]"
We look at... We look at Amazon as the largest shopping mall in the world. A world where it's only Amazon and Walmart and the dollar store makes me very sad.
Right? So that's why I'm focused on these… I call it "indie brands" or smaller brands, small to medium size.
And for us, if Shopify is arming the rebels, we want to be the largest rebel camp in the game. That's our goal. And that's what we're setting.
Let's talk about Amazon. Because that's like... I feel a lot of indie brands, their fear is getting on Amazon or Amazon just taking their customers with a knockoff product. But that's part of your strategy.
It's like, "We're gonna take these and put them there." So outline the pros and cons of this, this approach and how you found it works within your business.
Yeah, I think Amazon today is a necessary beast. You can't avoid it. So we like to say even if you don't want to play offense, you need to be playing defense anyway.
I think we're fortunate in the sense that we're creating branded store experiences. We're not just trying to sell another product on Amazon.
So take Homesick as one example. We are not trying to win the buy box for candles on Amazon. That would be incredibly expensive and unreasonable for us to expect that we could do that. But we can build a tremendous branded store on Amazon.
There's enough people going there to search for Homesick candles. We can also own things like Texas gift. An incredible gift around a state which happens to fall directly into our product line.
So we focus on getting the website right first, then expanding to Amazon in a branded approach. And sometimes we put most of our products on the branded store.
And sometimes we hold back products and do the first release on the website and release it to Amazon later.
Tactics and things like that, I think can keep you driving most of the customers back to the Shopify side. And that's obviously where we want to be.
Having that first party data, that customer relationship on Shopify, is what's unique. A lot of folks in our space, we get compared sometimes to Amazon aggregators.
And it's just fundamentally a different business. Amazon gives you more or less zero data. You're flying blind. You have to do your best.
So our goal is to make sure to focus as much on Shopify as possible, and just extend the branded store.
Absolutely. There's so much opportunity there to not include it in what you're doing.
Yeah, we... Look, we launched a Black Friday deal on the website and basically take that and launch it in a similar fashion on Amazon and you can double up on sales.
So there are really good opportunities there to gain a lot of volume and gain sales. You just have to be tactical about it. And you need the right people.
And we've hired an entirely new Amazon team to focus on Amazon. They deal with the Shopify team from a branding and creative and product perspective.
But they're doing totally different things.
Absolutely. So let's talk about... I'm a listener out there. I've got a store. We're doing okay, how do I you know, how do I make myself appealing to a business like yours?
Listen, I love entrepreneurship. I started out mowing lawns. I worked at McDonald's. I worked in construction. I've literally done every job in the world. That's an exaggeration, but a lot of jobs that I've quickly figured out, I don't want to do.
This is my fourth startup. So I do these things, and I get into them, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't. I would say, for anyone that is scaling a business and you've gotten to a place where you have real traction...
We define that as a minimum of $5 million of revenue on an annualized basis. That's a size and scale where you've shown proof of concept.
Anything above that, I think you need to think hard about what your goals are, and how long you want to be at the business.
Because I do think platforms like ours create really interesting opportunities for you to be able to partner and take what you've built, and put it into the hands of someone that cares a lot about it, and is going to continue to grow sustainably.
These didn't exist a few years ago. So I think it's a unique opportunity that just came in the last couple years.
And then I'm always a big believer in building and operating the business, as if you'll never sell. Be focused on that customer, be focused on scaling the business, but be open to having conversations.
And every time I have a conversation with a founder, which is literally several per week, my goal is to give them some honest feedback of what I would do based on my experience at the agency and now with the Holdco.
And if things come together in a partnership, that's great, but that's not the expectation.
Absolutely. That $5 million mark, it's a line in the sand. I'm sure there is a little wiggle room this way or that.
But I always tell people, the strategies that got you to a million dollars a year will not get you to $10 million a year. It's just a different ballgame.
That's a really good point. We talk about it internally. There's a type of mindset and entrepreneur that, you know, just breaks through walls. To me, that's like the 0 to $10 million.
There's that another stretch of $10M to $25M which is scaling what has worked and then trying to figure it out on a bigger scale.
$25M to $100M is totally different than $10M to $25M, totally different than zero to $10M.
So I think some CEOs, some founders can transition from one to the next. Others, frankly, it's better to bring folks in to be able to help you with that.
Sometimes that's hiring a CEO to help you manage the scale of the business. And sometimes that's partnering with a larger group.
Yeah, I think that's a tough pill to swallow for any entrepreneur is recognizing your weaknesses.
This will make you a better entrepreneur and a better business person in general, just knowing what you're not good at.
And just because you built an awesome product or even started the business doesn't mean you should be the CEO.
Oh 100%. You gotta… I think that's a great point. You have to know what to solve for those around you.
I'm the biggest believer of hiring great talent and getting out of the way. And everyone's great at certain things and not at others.
So I think at some point, you just have to be, as you said, self aware. Understand also where the business fits. Some businesses are set up to be $250 million revenue businesses just based on the market you're in, based on the sizing...
Others, it might be a $25 million business at Max. So where do you want to go and how do you monetize that? And I think that that journey is different for everyone.
I would say the common conversation that I end up having with these founders is, "If you've done it once or even multiple times, it's very often the case that you're gonna go do another one. This is probably not your last rodeo."
So the ability to kind of take some chips, monetize and go do something else is also super attractive for many of them.
Yeah, I think [there are] a lot of commonalities with entrepreneurs. They like building, they like tinkering. It's fun at the beginning. And then when it gets... It gets a little more monotonous when it works.
Now it's true. I am that exact way. I'm fortunate in the seat that I'm sitting in now, because the business is meeting new businesses, and then having these conversations, getting deals done with founders, so that in and of itself, keeps it fresh,
And keeps it exciting.
So you talked a lot about trying.. You hire smart people and get out of the way. You goy any tips to people out there about delegation?
So we've talked about this internally, I think there's very different schools of thought here. I do think in a business like ours, you do need discipline and you need tight management.
So, frankly, there are other folks that I've hired and brought into the organization that are more focused on that than I am.
For me, I believe the job of the CEO is to maintain the big picture, maintain strategy, maintain forward momentum. But I would say hire...
In every case, if you can meet candidates that are actually literally better than you, way better than you at whatever they're doing, and you can get out of their way, you're going to be 10 times ahead.
I think sometimes people try to hire to control things and it really sets them back in the longer term.
And by the way, the other side of that is the real A players, the really talented folks, they want some runway to be able to make decisions.
So it's almost like a necessity to get out of their way to allow them to make those decisions. In our case, I mentioned we have these 15 vertical leaders.
The last thing that I'm going to be doing is going to the head of customer service, and trying to understand the depth of knowledge that he has, with his 20 years experience in the space.
He's giving me updates. And he's designing and architecting a strategy that will work across the brands and that's really the focus.
And I've trusted him now entirely to do that the same way I trust our Head of 3PL Shipping/Logistics for her to align strategy for that side of the business.
Yeah, I think delegating outcomes and not like a to-do list is the mindset you need to have. And then something that we've learned...
A mistake we made along the way is like, hire the best person you can afford for the job. If you try to cheap out, it's always gonna bite you in the ass.
That's right. And I've... Again, sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. My old business, the agency, we were bootstrapped.
We hadn't raised capital. And we literally ran out of money 3 times. It drained my savings. If it didn't work, it was like I was done. Fortunately, things turned. And sometimes... I think most CEOs, most entrepreneurs, and founders have a gut instinct that you follow.
Sometimes you even overspend. "I can't even afford this person. But I have a feeling if I do it, it's going to work out." And those conversations and decisions are different with scale.
But that's right. If you can get someone excited enough about your business that's at a level where they're going to impact how much change, you have to do everything you can to to pull them in.
Absolutely. Now, we've talked a lot about the wins from your group. Let's talk about some losses.
Did anything come up from the history of building this thing, some mistakes or just learning curves that you want to let the audience know like, "I've already made this mistake. Don't make this one."
Yeah, I think... Listen, there's always going to be... We talk about things in regards to offense and defense.
And I actually have an all-hands offense meeting that I have every week, which I really enjoy because to put a sports analogy on it, you're just getting on the football field and just throwing the Hail Marys.
You're like, "What do you got? What do you got? What do you got?" Just ideas that could be really big ideas, because it takes that level of thinking... Maybe you have 10 ideas for one to be okay.
Then eventually that one that's okay could be a whole new product line for you. So anytime you're taking shots on products, not everything's going to work.
So we've had our fair share of things that worked really well and things that really didn't work at all. And same thing with marketing channels.
We've had to diversify now that Facebook/iOS has compressed the market. Whether it's TikTok, whether it's going back to podcasts, whether it's going back to mailers and catalogs, we're literally doing what we need to do to diversify.
And some of those things are going to work and some aren't. And the advantage that we have is we can test on one brand. If it works, we can apply it across the board. But in any case, that test is a real risk.
Yeah. Going back to your sports analogy, you just have to keep taking big swings because without taking a swing, there's no chance that you can hit a homerun.
And it's just like, you're gonna strike out sometimes. You get used to that failure. And you're like, "Alright, cool, that didn't work. Next idea. Let's go."
And then the ones that work will just compensate above and beyond for all the failures.
That's right. And for me, we talked about my entrepreneurial journey, my first business didn't go anywhere. My second business was basically a wash. My third, fortunately, there was a good outcome there.
And now this business, we're really excited about where it is. But I think if you want to make that work, it's going to take time. It might not be the first time. And you just got to keep at it. And I think part of its timing.
With Win Brands, I had an instinct coming off the agency experience that this holding company model would make sense and there'd be a lot of efficiencies we can pull from it.
But it's hard to think about that now. But back in 2017 - 2018, no one was talking about a holdco. No one was talking about a roll-up. That came 2 to 3 years later.
And more specifically around the Amazon aggregators that got more press. But to me, it just made sense.
So I'm like, "Look, I don't really care if the market is validating what I'm thinking right now. I'm going to take a shot on this and I'm going to make it work."
Absolutely. Now, is there anything that I didn't ask you about today that you think would resonate with our audience?
I think the... We kinda touched on it. I think it's worth re-activating. The fact that you got to where you are.
If you're an entrepreneur and have had some success based on your superpower.
Your superpower might be product innovation: you've created something new In the market.
Your superpower might be activating community: you've built a tremendously strong community around an average product, let's say.
I think what is going to become more and more important as we progress in this ecosystem, is focusing on your superpower. So try to buy some of your time back somehow so that you can really focus on those things.
Because the worst thing that I see and I see a lot is founders who are really good at 2 to 3 things.
But they're spending their time because there's no one else to do it, putting out fires at the 3PL or putting out fires at customs or their container ship caught at the port in China.
You've got to find a way to extract yourself and create more leverage for your time. And that's always going to be back at what you're best at, around those superpowers.
So I think there's a lot of different ways to do that. And everyone figures out their own journey.
That's the thing that gets me the most excited about: The entrepreneurs that we partner with, we can get them back to really frankly, what they want to be doing anyway, but also what they're best at.
Absolutely. Now let's give it another quick shout out to the brands and tell people where to check the brands out if they're curious about the products.
Yeah. I would love to. I'm super, super passionate about our brands and super proud. Our portfolio today has done now over half a billion dollars of revenue, which is wild for me to even think about or to say.
And that's made up today of Homesick candles. Nostalgia-based, great gift. We do personalization, UV printing directly on the glass so I could say "Hey Chase, thanks for having me on." And it's a very personal message maybe from your hometown, your home state.
We then have QALO. Once you wear a QALO ring, I can tell you, you're probably not going back to a metal ring. If you are married, it's so comfortable.
So you end up merchandising with like different colors, different fits. Awesome product that we've gotten into the pet side there as well with silicone accessories.
Gravity blankets, I mentioned, but for me personally, I sleep fine. But when I sleep with a weighted blanket, it's a much different sleep experience. You sleep like...
The only way I can describe it is deeper. You're like deep in sleep. So if you want that deep sleep...
And then Love Your Melon, we've just started rolling out our summer hats. But that's traditionally been more of a winter hat business actually based in Minnesota.
Those are our four primary brands. We bought some brands and kind of bolted them on and put them into the portfolio and we're looking at a few more now. But that would be our main portfolio that we’re super, super happy and super proud of.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Kyle. If someone was gonna hold of you, how do they reach out? What do they do?
Thank you, Chase. It's great to [be here]. I really enjoyed it. Email is easy firstname.lastname@example.org especially if it's a founder that's looking for advice, just wants to chat or maybe more than that.
But that's what I spend most of my days doing: meeting, chatting with founders. I would love to connect.
Absolutely. Thanks so much.
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.
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