I am excited to present a series of interviews with brands that have been able to successfully grow their Amazon presence. Even for an established business, it can be challenging to grow sales while navigating the Amazon platform and making sure you’re working towards your large picture goals. Therefore, learning from companies that have had strong Amazon growth will benefit both new and experienced sellers.

Our first interview is with Sterling Jones, co-founder of Jojo’s Chocolate, a company that helps to kick your sugar craving with its healthy, gluten and soy-free, Paleo-friendly dark chocolate bark. The company has a very inspiring story about how it was born. Since their start on the Amazon marketplace, they have been able to grow by ten times in less than two years!

Irina: One of the first things that catches your eye on the Jojo’s Chocolate website is the “From cancer to chocolate” line. Could you share the story about how the company was started?

Sterling: My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Anybody who’s been through that knows what it does to your body. The one thing that she really noticed was an increase in sugar cravings, these crazy cravings all the time. She tried to find something that would satisfy that sweet tooth and not harm her body. She wanted to know exactly what was in the ingredients and, most importantly, wanted it to taste good too. And because she couldn’t find something that was really good for her AND still satisfied that sweet tooth and tasted great, my mom started experimenting to come up with her own solution to sugar craving.

She knew the benefits of dark chocolate, including antioxidants. After a lot of trial and experiment in the home kitchen with different recipes, ingredients and proteins, she finally created what we now call Jojo’s chocolate bark. It really satisfied her sweet tooth, while still being low in sugar and tasting great because of the nuts, protein and, of course, chocolate.

After my mom had been eating it I tried it, and fell in love with it. I thought: “Wow, this really does the trick for me.” And that’s how we started and just continued to grow out of the home kitchen, and then go from there.

Irina: So Jojo’s Chocolates officially started in 2013, did you also get started on the Amazon platform in 2013?

Sterling: No, it was quite a bit after. I wish we would have started in 2013 on Amazon. Jojo’s chocolate first official sales were at a CrossFit competition in 2013. In early 2014 we launched our website. And we got on Amazon at the end of 2015. I didn’t even know if people bought chocolate on Amazon, so in the beginning it was getting started and figuring the process out. And in 2016 we were also featured on QVC.

Irina: You have been on Amazon for less than two years. And looking at your Amazon store it is obvious you grew at a quite remarkable pace. Could you give us an idea of your growth since you started on Amazon?

Sterling: Yes, we have seen quite significant growth. In 2016 we grew more than 7 times. And from January 2016 to January 2017 we grew about 10 times.

Irina: That is absolutely amazing, exponential growth, in a very competitive space. The chocolate category has a lot of big players. When you compete against larger brands how do you decide on the strategy? Could you talk more about how you differentiate on the Amazon marketplace?

Sterling: Yes, there are a lot of big brands in the chocolate category. One thing that we have tried to create is a personal brand. Even on a huge marketplace like Amazon, people still come to your page, look at your pictures, and if they are interested they are going to read your detailed paragraph. We implement the brand story in order to create that personal connection with the customer.

On our Amazon product page we have the picture of my mom and I when she was going through cancer, and unfortunately had her head shaven. So did I. Right away customers see a face behind the brand, and they can relate to that, especially when you are going against a big player in the industry.

Another thing we tried to do was strive for great reviews. That’s the key of having a great product is that you can have great customer reviews. Our average review rating is 4.7, and today we are at 252 reviews. That obviously does a lot for us.

And, finally, another important thing that we have worked on is marketing. Pay-per-click advertising on the Amazon platform has been great for us. We did a lot of testing in the beginning, and continue to constantly improve based on data. Our category has become more competitive, and cost of advertising is going up, but if you are trying to always stay on top you can find niche keywords. I keep finding interesting keywords that I didn’t know people search with to find our product.

Irina: Could you talk a little bit more about reviews? What is your process and strategy in gathering product reviews?

Sterling: Yes, and we do it a bit differently. We don’t have a huge email series follow up. I try to send only one or two emails. If they have already left a review I don’t send them an email, but if they have not, I usually send just two, and I try to make it really friendly, personal, and short. I literally say ‘30 seconds is all I am asking for. Please just leave a review’. People resonate with that more than a huge email pitch. For me and my customer base sending a simple email works better.

And for some products we give a PDF, for example, recipes, to get customers to open the email.

Irina: Since you grew so fast in a fairly short period of time, could you tell us about any growing pains, challenges or any lessons you have learned from scaling fast?

Sterling: Well, I could go for a while on this question! Firstly, shipping chocolate is difficult. In the summertime we do merchant fulfilled, and in wintertime we use Amazon fulfillment. It has been challenging for us to grow through warmer months because of the need to figure out shipping with ice, while staying cost effective with shipping costs. Start using FBA service as soon as possible is definitely one thing I can recommend.

Secondly, we keep a bootstrapping approach in our business, which means occasionally going out of stock. In the beginning I preferred to go out of stock rather than have too much inventory. So putting emphasis on forecasting and projecting inventory as accurately as possible has been critical.

Irina: You mentioned you do merchant fulfillment in summer. Are you in the Seller Fulfilled Prime program?

Sterling: Yes, it has been challenging to maintain shipping costs manageable within the program. Amazon is planning to roll out this summer, I believe, area-specific rates. Which means if you want to offer products in, let’s say, only ten states, you can do that. That will really help us to pay for the two-day shipping, because shipping two day anywhere in the country is really expensive.

Irina: I know that in addition to Amazon you also have your own website. When you look at your business as a whole, how do you decide where to put focus on growth and how do you determine return on investment beyond sales numbers and margins?

Sterling: Being a new company we saw Amazon as a great place to start because you can get sales fast to start getting return on capital. In retail it is net 30, net 45, net 60, and you still need to continue making your product. So we saw Amazon as a way to bootstrap a lot quicker.

We also saw advantage of having been on Amazon when we went into exploring getting into retail. We can show retailers our Amazon reviews, that people loved our products, so having existing history of selling on Amazon has been an advantage in that regard.

Shoppers will still buy food in grocery stores, and we continue to focus on growing retail, but being on Amazon and growing multiple times in 18 months really alleviates strain of capital and makes the process of getting into retail a lot easier for us.

But overall we focus on building a brand, which is a long-term play. We know that building a strong brand takes a while, and we know it is worth it.

Irina: Could we talk a bit about the operational side? It’s not as exciting as sales and marketing for some, but it is a backbone of business, and without strong operations business can fall apart. So could you talk more about operations behind Jojo’s brand?

Sterling: Yes, we do have a great manufacturer. As I mentioned, we started in the kitchen, then went to a manufacturer, then we outgrew them, and now with our second manufacturer, who has been great. Our manufacturer does both production and shipment during summer months, and then in winter they ship pallets to Amazon. And right now we are outgrowing them as well, and will be moving into a larger facility.

I also have a good friend who does financials and accounting for us, and who also helped us with managing capital. That is extremely important.

Everything else, like marketing, coming up with new products, growing, all I am doing myself. My goal is to grow to the brand. I think a lot depends on personal goals. We are doing enough that we could let business run itself, but that is not my goal. We all have heard of the four-hour work week, which is great if that is your goal. Amazon has allowed us to grow to the point that I could step out and let it run. But I want to keep growing Jojo’s Chocolate, so I put in a lot of hours to find new products, to build customer relationships, to put strategies in place to continue to build the brand.

Irina: What would be your advice for a seller new to Amazon?

Sterling: First of all, get on Amazon. Start it, figure it out as you go. People say it’s too competitive now, but there is still plenty of space, and will be for a long time.

When you get started make sure you have research behind your product. Doing research and a lot of upfront work is important. It is hard to do projections without having done your research. So, in one sentence, put in the time upfront. I would rather take a month to research a product than take a week and then be stuck with no sales. Today’s market is definitely harder, but doing research and then continuously improving pays off.

Irina: Great advice. So what is next for Jojo’s Chocolate?

Sterling: To be in retail by the end of 2017. We have built enough customer base to do that. We will also release new products on Amazon, new flavors. The main goal for the next year is to see Jojo’s in every major retail store. That’s the future of Jojo’s!

Irina: That is exciting. And I look forward to new flavors. The first bag I tried was gone in two hours! And last question, where can we find you, besides Amazon?

Sterling: Yes, jojoschocolate.com is our website. We are also on Facebook and Instagram. And in the future look for our YouTube channel with recipes, tips and lots of exciting things. We are really working on building out a brand around satisfying your sweet tooth and helping people eat less sugar.

Irina: That is a great mission. Thank you so much Sterling for coming to share your time and your Amazon experience with us. An amazing journey so far, and we wish you all the best!

Irina Balyurko

As a main consultant at SellerLadder.com Irina helps businesses grow revenues, expand business footprint and strengthen brand positioning through leverage of global Amazon marketplaces. Irina combines her Amazon expertise, MBA and a high calibre corporate experience in project management to create and implement e-commerce strategy that ensures presence on Amazon platform fits into the business’ overall vision and goals and guarantees a thoughtful plan and execution of growth on global Amazon channels. Her author profile can be found here.