I first interviewed Sean McGinnis for this podcast in November 2020. He had recently arrived at Kuru Footwear, a direct-to-consumer shoe manufacturer, as chief marketing officer, with big plans to grow the business.
The results are in for his first full year: He’s now president of the company, and sales are booming. “We don’t disclose our financials,” he told me, “but I can say we’re growing, we’re bootstrapped, and we’re profitable. 2021 was very, very healthy for us.”
Among McGinnis’s first moves was to reorient and streamline Kuru’s paid search campaigns. He and I recently discussed those efforts and more. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.
Eric Bandholz: You are now the president of Kuru Footwear. Congratulations!
Sean McGinnis: Thanks very much.
Bandholz: You’ve expressed an interest in Kuru expanding to brick-and-mortar. Is that still a possibility?
McGinnis: Yes. It’s on the roadmap, but not this next year. We have much online growth in front of us first. My goal is to open our first retail store in 2024.
We are focused on the long game. We’re trying to grow rapidly but also responsibly and profitably. Kuru’s a private company. We don’t disclose our financials. But I can say we’re growing, we’re bootstrapped, and we’re profitable. 2021 was very, very healthy for us.
That’s unlike many of the DTC darlings, as I call them, the ones that have gone public and are losing money.
We’re focusing on the bottom of the funnel. Imagine that you’ve got foot pain, you’ve got plantar fasciitis or similar, and you search for foot pain solutions. We bid on those keywords in Google and Bing. Those are major revenue drivers for us. The other big driver is our email list — selling to existing customers, repeat purchases, things of that nature.
We split our paid search into two channels: branded and non-branded. Each aligns with the three categories or funnels on our site: types of foot pain, specific activities (such as hiking), and work-related.
The third category, work-related, is important to us. Many jobs require workers to be on their feet all day or walk on concrete — think delivery drivers, warehouse workers, retail employees, food service staff, nurses, healthcare, teachers.
So those are the three areas with focused keywords that we’re buying, which drive prospects into micro-funnels on our site.
Bandholz: 2021 has been painful for Beardbrand. We essentially pulled off Facebook. We need to refocus our marketing strategies. Bottom-of-the-funnel search acquisition we’ve never done. Where do we begin?
McGinnis: I have two schools of thought. First is the generic name, such as “beard,” “beard lotion,” and similar. You’ve built an incredible brand, and you’re using the generic term in your name. So your branded search term of “Beardbrand” is likely more expensive because you’re suddenly competing against generic phrases.
I would look for an agency that you can trust and pay as little as possible to get started — unless you have a capable person in-house. Start small and build up.
Set a target marketing efficiency ratio (MER) or return on ad spend (ROAS). That’s how we manage our campaigns. We look at blended rates for MER and ROAS. When we’re more successful in free channels, it empowers us to spend more in paid. Every business is different, however.
About 50% of our paid search revenue comes through our branded channel and 50% through non-brand. But non-brand is 10-times more spend. There’s much more competitive pressure on those keywords. Amazon, New Balance, Allbirds, you name it — they’re in our space.
When I arrived at Kuru a couple of years ago, I terminated the company’s agency and hired an in-house person with paid search experience. Then I hired another paid search employee, who I knew from a previous position, to restructure the whole account from the ground up. She came in with her team. Within five months, they had everything rebuilt. In my experience, a restructure about every two years can do wonders.
Bandholz: What about affiliate marketing?
McGinnis: We’re going to try an agency to build out our affiliate network. If that doesn’t work, I’ll assign it to an in-house employee to give it the attention it deserves. We may create a separate email account with my name on it, and that employee could do outreach to the publishing houses. We’re happy to offer free products to their editors, so they will know we’re a legit company. That’s the current plan. We’ll see how it works.
Bandholz: Returning to paid search, what are your ROAS expectations for non-branded ads?
McGinnis: We are measuring it. We want it to return better than one, but we’re willing to accept less than that, too. Again, we look at blended ROAS for branded and non-branded.
It boils down to being oriented toward growth or efficiency. If you’re oriented for efficiency, every single deal has to be profitable — every sale, channel, ad group, keyword. But if you look at it in a blended way, which we do, you tolerate inefficiency to achieve growth. That’s our view.
Bandholz: We’ve long relied on a single post-purchase survey question: How did you first hear about Beardbrand? We list all of our marketing channels on the survey. Then we’ll essentially prorate that number into our revenue for an attribution model. We’re trusting customers to answer accurately.
McGinnis: We have a similar survey, but we haven’t yet baked it into our data. Growth requires a willingness to take some risks and experiment. Where can we spend money? What are the right messages? How can we get our brand in front of nurses, health care workers, teachers?.
Bandholz: The growth you’re seeing from demand capture is incredible. I suspect there are untapped channels for Kuru, such as Amazon.
McGinnis: That and, also, brand awareness. I’m convinced we’ll eventually advertise on television, radio, and billboards to raise awareness. Our CEO is fond of saying he wants to be the biggest brand you’ve never heard of. If you’ve got foot pain, he wants to be in your face, so to speak.
Bandholz: That’s clearly evident. Your success speaks for itself. Where can people connect with you, learn more?