Conventional ecommerce wisdom is that merchants should sell across multiple channels, manufacture or control their products, and scale.
Don’t tell that to Brian Goulet, president of The Goulet Pen Company, which sells high-end fountain pens and writing accessories.
“I wanted to be a craftsman,” Goulet told me. “That approach shapes our whole business. We have a craftsmanship mentality of high touch, high quality, high level of service — with a lower volume. I was never trying to scale or sell as much as possible. We were after a discerning customer.”
Ten years after Goulet co-founded the company with his wife, Rachel, Goulet Pens has 35 employees and 4,500 SKUs — all in its headquarters of Henrico, Virginia — and one sales channel: GouletPens.com.
I recently spoke with Brian about launching the business, content marketing, and managing an expanding team. What follows is our entire audio conversation and a transcript, which is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about yourself and Goulet Pen Company.
Goulet: My wife and I launched the company in 2009. We’re 100-percent ecommerce. Our sole sales channel is our website, GouletPens.com. Our business is focused on fountain pens. The technology has been around for 150 years. These are the types of pens that you fill up with water-based ink, which comes out of a bottle. We sell ink, paper, and other accessories. We have about 4,500 products in our store, which, again, is all online. We fulfill and ship ourselves. We’re not a dispersed team, except for now with Covid-19.
We do customer service, marketing, fulfillment, inventory operations — all in one location in Virginia. Our team is about 35 people. We rely heavily on content marketing — how to use fountain pens; how to clean them; what makes one pen different from another.
Some of our manufacturers have been around for 100 years — multi-generational family companies. They are based in Japan, Germany, Italy, places where fountain pen culture is still very strong. But in the U.S., it’s not so much anymore. So, that’s the opportunity to have a lot of content around fountain pens.
Bandholz: You’re a traditional ecommerce retailer. You don’t manufacture your own product. How has Amazon impacted your business?
Goulet: Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla. It has impacted us. We’ve been very aware of Amazon from our beginning. I was making my own pens out of wood, not fountain pens, but high-end, gift-type pens. I was a woodworker. I wanted to be a craftsman. So, that approach shapes our whole business. We had a craftsmanship mentality of high touch, high quality, high level of service — with a lower volume. I was never trying to scale or sell as much as possible. We were after a discerning customer.
Thankfully, good service and quality education are not what Amazon excels at. Our customers may have a collection of 40 fountain pens already. They aren’t focused on receiving their order in two hours. They’re willing to wait an extra day or two. But they know that our company can answer their obscure fountain pen questions. We care about our customers. We have a rapport with them. So, the best way to compete with Amazon is not to compete.
Bandholz: Why have in-house fulfillment? Why not outsource?
Goulet: Part of it was ignorance. We also didn’t have a choice. I was selling my own handmade wood pens. We shipped through the U.S. Postal Service out of our house. So it started out of practicality.
We had no money. We started the business with $2,000. And by the way, our son, who’s now 10, was born then. Throw in a mortgage, and it gets clear real quick.
Again, I am a craftsman. That mentality drives how we pack and ship our products. We’ve looked at third-party fulfillment firms, but there are so many advantages to having it in-house. So, that’s why we do it that way.
Bandholz: Your YouTube channel is incredible. What was the strategy there?
Goulet: Not much of a strategy. I started making YouTube videos in 2010. I give credit to Gary Vaynerchuk and his book, “Crush It.” That was his first marketing book. He’s now written five.
I liked the idea of blogging and education and being a subject matter expert. And then pairing that with selling products. I saw the potential of that for the fountain pen community. No one was doing that. I saw an opportunity to take it online and to pair it with content marketing. I knew that video was a good option for me personally. And the products are visual, suited for photos and videos. And it was a way to build a connection.
Now, 1,700 videos later, YouTube has proven to be a successful platform for our company and its DNA. It’s been a slow, 10-year build.
Bandholz: You and I recently discussed leadership. One of your staples is that no one should be surprised as to the outcome of working at your company. Can you elaborate on that?
Goulet: To be unclear as a leader is to be unkind. There are just three reasons why someone in a company is not successful at his job. The first reason is the employee has personal issues, stuff that you can’t control. The second is incompetence — he’s not capable of doing the job. But perceived incompetence is leadership failure. That’s the third reason. The leadership failure is that person should have never been hired in the first place.
Bandholz: Trust is one of my core values. I inherently trust people. If an employee says he’s doing things, then I believe him. How do you balance trust with making sure the job gets done, to meet company goals?
Goulet: It’s a good point. We have 35 or so people for 19 or 20 different positions. How do we define all these positions with continually changing tasks? And then, how do we assign metrics to them that are clear for both sides — employees and management?
I’m much more of an entrepreneur than a manager. Without the proper tools and metrics, you’re leaving it up to fate to decide if someone is successful in her job. Plus, without clear goals and metrics, people are unclear about their responsibilities, especially as the company gets larger. So, you have to focus on clarity and metrics the bigger you get.
Bandholz: How do you communicate those metrics and expectations?
Goulet: It depends on the size of the organization and its growth rate. A team of 10,000 people is different than a team of four. The right answer, to me, is you want no more structure and no more meetings than are required. But you want to have enough to provide clarity. At a minimum, it’s critical to have a one- or two-day annual planning meeting for senior leadership and then, perhaps, a one-day or half-day catch-up each quarter.
I also like the idea of weekly or twice-monthly meetings for the entire company. We also do daily five- or 10-minute stand-up meetings for our leadership team.
That schedule works well for us because we’re constantly launching new products, maybe 150 SKUs a month. So, there is a lot of new product information, new shipments, new marketing. We meet at 8:45 every morning in those stand-ups, as a broader leadership team of nine or 10 of us.
Bandholz: How should our readers contact you?