Special Interview with John James: CEO of Engine

Today, the eCommerce industry has become very competitive as well as lucrative. Hence, more and more entrepreneurs are going into eCommerce with numerous online stores being set up everyday.

While, most of these eCommerce entrepreneurs struggle to breakthrough, a few of them have achieved great successes, running multi-million dollar eCommerce businesses.

One of the few hugely successful eCommerce entrepreneurs in the world today is our interview guest!

John James, a highly-accomplished serial eCommerce entrepreneur, is the CEO of Engine, a unique, cloud-based eCommerce platform that recently closed a $2 million round of seed funding.

John was able to raise over $100 million of venture capital for his former company Acumen Brands, accumulated 8 million Facebook fans and 11 million email subscribers!

We had the privilege of interviewing John, the eCommerce genius, recently!

Please, sit back and enjoy this mouth-watering and eye-opening interview, and drop your comments in the Comnents section below.



Brannd Hub: John, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us!

John James: My pleasure. Let’s get to it!

Brannd Hub: Wow! Your business profile is quite impressive! Would you say you have been fortunate to have achieved great successes as an entrepreneur?

John James: Blessed beyond belief. My path from a family physician to running an ecommerce company that raised $100 million of venture capital is improbable to say the least.

More humbling is the opportunity to work with some of the best talent from that team one more time as we build Engine, our upcoming ecommerce platform.

Brannd Hub: Interestingly, you actually financed your medical education with the proceeds from your first ecommerce business you started in your college dom room in 1994! Could you share the experience with us?

John James: Starting college in 1993 was a perfect time. Early exposure to the nascent internet was one of the most fortuitous experiences of my life. Without that early exposure, I would almost certainly be practicing medicine today.

If you rewind back to 1994, there weren’t a lot of ecommerce websites. In fact, email wasn’t even ubiquitous, and browsers were in their very early days.

I was a pre-med student studying microbiology, but most days I’d skip class and “play” on the internet. That recreational activity turned into a real business pretty quickly. Like Jeff Bezos famously recognized, I saw the internet’s 1000% annual growth and realized it was about to fuel a business revolution.

In hindsight, I’m not quite sure why I actually went to medical school and completed a residency – by my senior year of college, I was earning a 6-figure doctor-like salary from my passion: ecommerce.

For my early introduction to the internet, I thank my college roommate, Jim Kane. He was around as I built that first website, he was the founding CTO at my last company where we raised $100 million of venture capital, and he is also my co-founder at Engine. I’m pretty sure we’d both be helpless without each other – our skill sets mesh quite well, and it’s a blast working with him.

Brannd Hub: College students doing business back in the 90’s vs college students doing business today: how would you compare the two realities?

John James: It’s much easier today. Starting a startup has never been cheaper nor easier. The tools are much more accessible and easier to use.

In fact, I routinely tell business students who want to be entrepreneurs to start hanging out at the engineering college. All you need to start a business is a business mind and an engineer who can hack together your idea.

Our team has a real passion for investing mentorship time into local up and coming entrepreneurs. We work closely with a group of students from the University of Arkansas. They hang out in the Engine office, and are running multi-million dollar ecommerce brand for us.

Brannd Hub: John, you’re a serial ecommerce entrepreneur. How difficult or easy is it to run multiple businesses as an entrepreneur?

John James: Being a serial entrepreneur is evidently en vogue today.

But the truth is, simply starting multiple businesses doesn’t make you a serial entrepreneur. Running multiple shitty businesses doesn’t make you a serial entrepreneur.

I’ve heard multiple pitches where the founder tells me about 3 or even 4 businesses they are running. Almost universally, all of them will fail. Don’t try to run more than one at a time — you are not Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk or Steve Jobs!

I’m not either. I’ve done/tried it before, and it’s incredibly distracting. While you think you are getting optionality, in reality all of them will likely fail.

Starting, building, and selling multiple businesses is a rare thing.  For most entrepreneurs, building and scaling a single business is enough to set them up financially for life.

I’ve been lucky enough to do it four times, and I’m optimistic the fifth will be the best of them all.

Brannd Hub: Your career achievements are very impressive! How many years did it take you to realize your first real business success?

John James: Less than a year, actually. And in hindsight, it was complete beginners’ luck.

I spent $100 on a direct mail campaign for my first ecommerce business – remember, search engine advertising didn’t exist yet in 1994 – and it worked spectacularly, generating $5,000 in profit.

I then parlayed that $5,000 into more mailers, and built a business generating six-figures in profit in a few short months.

Brannd Hub: You have founded and led hugely successful companies including Acumen Brands! How did the Acumen Brands idea come?

John James: Well, it was founded on January 1, 2009 at the absolute height of the financial crisis. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about how companies that spent marketing dollars in times of economic recession or depression stole a ridiculous amount of market share from companies that merely hunkered down and tried to survive.

So, that was the initial premise — build multiple ecommerce stores, and out spend the competition. Crazy enough, it actually worked.

Brannd Hub: With Acumen Brands, you were able to raise over $100 million as well as dominate the country wear market in the late 2000’s! How did you achieve these feats?

John James: We figured out how to do ecommerce on Facebook before anyone else. Rather than a linear “harvest demand” approach that works well on Google, we pioneered a “create demand” approach that was eventually copied by every other ecommerce brand that used Facebook.

Back when CPCs were 2 and 3 and 4 cents per click, we accumulated 8 million Facebook fans and 11 million email subscribers… in four months.

We grew our annual revenue run rate from $9 million to over $100 million in that same four month time period.

By gathering over 10 million email subscribers and showing 1100% revenue growth in just 120 days, we had our choice of capital partners.

Brannd Hub: Your startup studio, Hayseed Ventures, has incubated numerous successful ecommerce firms including Engine. How is Hayseed Ventures different from other startup incubators?

John James: We don’t suck.

Most accelerators and incubators actually provide negative value. If you are running an incubator and haven’t built a super successful company in that field, you almost certainly suck.

We had success right out of the gate. Menguin, a company focused on online tuxedo rental, moved to Arkansas to work with our Engine team. At the time, they were doing around $5000 in monthly revenue. We worked with the team, and in less than two years, they were acquired for $25 million by the founder of Men’s Warehouse.

Here’s the story!

In addition to building the Arkansas startup ecosystem, the goal of Hayseed was to find my next venture. We’ve stopped incubating companies for the time being, but we will almost certainly launch an Engine Ecommerce Incubator/Investment Fund in the near future.

Brannd Hub: You’re the Co-Founder and CEO of Engine, a cloud-based eCommerce platform. Can you tell us the uniqueness of Engine as an eCommerce platform?

John James: Let me start by saying what it’s not — Engine is not a solution for tiny mom and pop retailers. It contains all the learnings we acquired building and running high growth online stores for two decades.

Engine is a high-end ecommerce platform for companies looking to scale their revenue. It is infinitely customizable, will quickly become the go-to solution for technically savvy ecommerce companies who are looking to build a real brand through a differentiated customer experience.

Additionally, it has several growth marketing tools built into its core.  Our content + commerce tools are second to none – building beautiful, shoppable content marketing is a breeze on Engine.

The concept of event driven marketing cascades is also a core feature. Imagine the concept of abandoned cart emails and Facebook remarketing, but at all phases of the shopping funnel.
These marketing flows are custom tailored to each user, and driven artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Brannd Hub: How do you plan to make Engine very competitive among your established competitors such as Amazon, Alibaba, Shopify, Wal-Mart, etc?

John James: The most obvious competitor in that list would seem to be Shopify — we’re both cloud hosted ecommerce platforms.  But we couldn’t be more different.

Well, I don’t think of them as competitors, and I certainly don’t see the others that way. Our product is highly differentiated and serves a different user than those four incredible companies.

Shopify is super easy to use. With simplicity, however, comes a lack of power and customization. If you are a mom and pop retailer, Shopify is perfect for you. Even store owners without programming skill can easily build a simple, fairly nice Shopify store.

Shopify is like Henry Ford’s Model T – you can have it in any color you want, as long as it’s black. It’s one heck of a car, but every car looks the same.

Engine, on the other hand is infinitely customizable and quite a bit more powerful. It’s not for mom and pop retailers, however.  It’s
easy to use, but nowhere as easy as Shopify. It’s designed for growing companies that have some tech savvy.

Engine is for building a unique customer experience. A store that stands out from the rest.

Go to Warby Parker. Go to Houzz.  Go to Chewy. None of those stores could be built on Shopify.  All of them could easily be built on Engine.

Brannd Hub: Amazingly, you’re responsible for 90% of the capital raised in Arkansas over the past 10 years! How would you describe the Arkansas startup ecosystem today?

John James: It’s improving rapidly.

It’s the best place in the world to build a business, especially the Northwest corner of the state.

But if you need capital, and you haven’t had an outsized success in your past ventures, you will likely struggle to raise capital in Arkansas.

Brannd Hub: If in the early 2000’s you had known social media business would be this profitable, would you have established your own social media company?

John James: I certainly would’ve tried. But, like most others who were fast followers of MySpace, Friendster I would’ve almost certainly failed.

Social networks are driven by Metcalfe’s Law — the value of the network is the square of the number of users. Unless you get to critical mass, and only a few can, you will fail to create anything of real value.

Brannd Hub: So many entrepreneurs are struggling to raise capital for their startups. What do you think is the best way out?

John James: Change your goal — bootstrap your company to a million dollar business. You’ll own 100% of it, and you’ll be a king or queen.

If, on the other hand, you raise a round or two of venture capital and build that same million dollar business, you’re all the sudden a moron.

If you find it hard to raise capital, don’t. If you pitch 20 or 30 smart folks and don’t get a bite, solve the problem another way.

I’ve bootstrapped 3 of my 4 businesses. I made more money in the 3 boostrapped businesses than I did in the venture where I raised $100 million.

Brannd Hub: What would be your practical advice to ecommerce entrepreneurs?

John James: In today’s post-Amazon world where price shopping is simple, the loyalty lies in the brand not the retailer.

So, build your store around your own brand. Unless you are naive enough to compete directly with Amazon and Wal-Mart, don’t sell products from other manufacturers – build your own.

Warby Parker, Casper, Bonobos, Honest Company, Walker and Company… all digitally-native vertical brands.

Brannd Hub: Would you tell us your favourite business book(s)?

John James: I read a book or two a week. Rework by Jason Fried stands out as the best in terms of the time commitment/reward ratio. You can read it 2 or 3 hours, and it will change the way you work.

Brannd Hub: What is your favourite business quote?

John James: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  – Theodore Roosevelt

Brannd Hub: It was awesome interviewing you, John! Thanks for your time and the valuable information you have shared with us!

John James: Any time!


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