Five years ago Greg Mercer was traveling the world, making a living by purchasing white-label goods from China and selling them on Amazon.
“I realized that some of my products were doing better than others,” he told me. “I developed spreadsheets to estimate how well products on Amazon were selling. It was labor-intensive. I thought it would be cool if I could put this into a Chrome extension. So I built that extension. I launched it as a fun, side project.”
That side project is now Jungle Scout, with roughly 250,000 worldwide customers and 150 employees.
I recently spoke with Mercer about his company, Amazon, and managing a remote team. What follows is our entire audio conversation and a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Jungle Scout and yourself.
Greg Mercer: I founded Jungle Scout five years ago. At the time, I was selling physical products on Amazon. I was importing goods from China, white labeling them, and selling them on Amazon. I realized that some of my products were doing better than others. It came down to demand.
That seems pretty basic today. But back then it was difficult to know what products were selling well on Amazon. I developed spreadsheets to estimate how well products on Amazon were selling. It was labor-intensive.
I thought it would be cool if I could put this into a Chrome extension. So then I built that extension. Users could run it on the Amazon page and get an understanding of what was selling well and what wasn’t.
Jungle Scout was never supposed to be a software company. I launched it as a side, fun project. I knew very little about software. I was just hoping to make money in subscription fees to recover what it cost me to build. Fast-forward to 2020, and we have a quarter-million customers and 150 employees — 40 in Austin, Texas, and the rest worldwide.
Bandholz: What are some of the metrics that Jungle Scout provides?
Mercer: It has evolved over the years. Now Jungle Scout is a tool to help you find new products as well as manage and optimize your business. It’s in-depth and robust. We’re best known for accurately estimating sales on Amazon. Through that, you could research products or forecast or monitor your competitors — things like that. We’re also known for keyword search volume metrics on Amazon — how often keywords are searched and similar keywords.
We crawl the site for some of the data; other parts come through Amazon’s APIs. Our secret sauce happens when our team of data scientists analyzes the massive amounts of data to come up with predictions. The data team then tests their predictions against known performance. Through that, we can estimate demand and search volume for all products.
Bandholz: Can Amazon block your crawlers?
Mercer: I used to lose sleep over this. However, Amazon personnel has told us that we’re helping Amazon and sellers. We’re helping people launch products on Amazon, fill gaps in their catalogs, estimate margins, and so on.
Bandholz: Are there still opportunities on Amazon?
Bandholz: Are you concerned with consumers moving away from Amazon?
Mercer: No. I don’t foresee that. My best guess is that Amazon will continue to grow for at least another decade. I think Amazon will continue to have an open platform and allow any seller to sign up, more or less.
Bandholz: Amazon has clamped down on fake reviews. Is that making it harder to obtain honest reviews?
Mercer: Amazon has done a pretty darn good job at this. It’s no longer the problem that it was. A year or so ago, it had gotten out of control, especially when sellers could pay people to leave reviews. A seller could say, “I’ll give you this product for free in exchange for a review.” That was extremely abused, even by me, but it was allowed.
But now Amazon is good at detecting abuse. It came out during Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress about user privacy. Amazon was buying Facebook’s data as to a seller’s friends and determining whether those friends were leaving reviews. Stuff like that. Probably 1,000 people at Amazon work in the review-fraud area.
Bandholz: Let’s switch directions. Can a seller be successful without using Fulfillment by Amazon?
Mercer: You pretty much have to offer Prime, either via FBA or Seller Fulfilled Prime. But, Seller Fulfilled Prime is not practical for most merchants because they have to pay for the shipping costs, which is typically higher than using FBA. Plus, the merchandise must arrive within two days. So, yes, you pretty much have to use FBA.
Bandholz: You launched five years ago. You now have 150 employees worldwide. How do you manage such a remote team?
Mercer: Let’s start with a bit of background. When my wife and I founded Jungle Scout, we were living the digital nomad life. We had sold our house. Sold all of our stuff. Everything we each owned fit in a carry-on suitcase. We were traveling around the world. Over three years, we moved to 35 roughly countries. In other words, the company was entirely remote when we founded it. The team grew to around 30 or 40 people in the first few years. We were all working remotely. We built the company on a remote foundation.
We now have our headquarters here in Austin. Our entire executive team is here, except for our vice president of engineering. We have an office in Vancouver that’s primarily developers and user experience designers. And we opened an office in Shenzhen in China a year and a half ago. It’s mainly for marketing and customer support people for our Chinese customers.
Bandholz: How do you manage it all? I’m trying to imagine Beardbrand at 10-times its current size.
Mercer: I meet with key employees weekly. On Monday, we have a two-hour meeting with the whole executive team and then smaller meetings throughout the week. This is the first larger sized company I’ve had. I’ve learned that an executive-level person expects and needs a degree of autonomy. The best way to do it is to set expectations and metrics, and then manage them to those metrics.
But that’s is easier said than done. I still find myself getting in the weeds. I’ll read an in-house article and want to change it. In that example, I need to work on setting expectations upfront about the voice of the brand instead of requesting a change to a few sentences.
Like most entrepreneurs, I’m more of an ideas guy. I daydream a lot. I’m don’t hunker down and grind through lots of boring work. So I try to have those weekly conversations with our team. I have just six direct reports.
Bandholz: Let’s address Jungle Scout’s growth. Has it been organic? Or perhaps a lot of advertising?
Mercer: About 40 percent of our customer acquisition comes from organic search on Google. Roughly 20 to 30 percent is via performance marketing, and then the remainder through social media affiliates.
On organic search, prospects are looking for advice, mainly. How to sell on Amazon? How to set up a seller central account? How to split test my Amazon listings? So we’ve been publishing quite a bit of content that addresses those questions. It’s high quality. We’re highly ranked for a lot of keywords. That drives a lot of traffic.
Bandholz: What is your content strategy?
Mercer: There are three pillars. One is to keyword target articles. We’ll find keywords that get high search volume but we’re not ranking for. We’ll try to create an article for that keyword. Then there’s another type of content to entice return visitors, who know that we produce valuable posts on selling on Amazon. We don’t focus on keywords for this type of article.
The third pillar of content is more data-driven. It’s almost like a whitepaper. It’s good for thought leadership, media exposure, and backlinks. An example is Covid-19. We published a bunch of data on how the pandemic is affecting Amazon. What’s selling well, what’s not selling, and overall performance. It got picked up by dozens of publications, including The New York Times and Wired.
Bandholz: How can our listeners reach you?
Mercer: I post on Instagram at G_Mercer. Our site is JungleScout.com.