Five years in, Internet marketer well past startup status
By Jeff Keeling
“Bargain hunters. The people who like to grab stuff off the impulsive section in the checkout line. Those are the customers that shop with us.”
Vantha Chhoun, Jammin Butter co-owner
“We still maintain a little bit of goofiness. Every website you go to is, ‘here’s this, buy this, ok.’ We would go insane if we had to act like that all day. We’re very focused on growing this business, but we don’t think we need to do it in the traditional format.”
Chad Biggs, Jammin Butter co-owner
The video opens in a darkened room. A light flicks on. Jammin Butter co-owner and chief quirky video spokesman Chad Biggs appears, looking at a built-in computer camera and wearing an LED headlamp best described as functional but not necessarily sleek. He touts the “Cree” bulb’s features and benefits before cutting to the chase and exemplifying one of the Johnson City-based Internet marketing company’s main pillars of success.
“Let me tell you why you’re getting an incredible deal,” the 34-year-old entrepreneur explains. “Nothing is wrong with the headlamp, it’s in perfect shape. I’ll tell you one thing, though – they put ‘batteries included’ on this. Like I said, it takes three regular triple batteries. That’s why you’re getting it for a ridiculously low price – factory goofed … so it turns out, stores can’t take ‘em. You’re going to get them at a ridiculous low price.”
In five years, on a platform consisting of equal parts tech prowess, bargain basement prices and building a quirky brand, Jammin Butter has grown from a two-person startup to a $4 million Internet marketing firm with 23 employees.
The company just celebrated its fifth anniversary with a party at its Roweland Drive headquarters that included Sumo wrestling, a watermelon-eating contest and distribution of “mystery bags of crap,” but its roots trace to 2006. That was the year that Biggs, as a side project under the company he was with at the time, started a website selling stuff online. The site generated $139 that year.
By mid-2009, Biggs was wearying of his association with Razor, the tech company he’d helped found, but he remained rather enamored of the Internet marketing website, ivegottohavethat.com, which was selling everything from LED headlamps to kitchen gadgets. Biggs was also impressed with Vantha Chhoun, who was working with him as they slowly built the website business in Johnson City using equal parts silliness and super-low prices.
Biggs told Chhoun he wanted to spin the website off independently, and that he wanted her to come on as a business partner.
“She looked at me like I was kind of crazy, because she was my employee at that point, but I felt like this had drastic potential and didn’t want to take on the venture myself,” Biggs says.
Fun was the key ingredient, he adds. The fact that Internet sales were at roughly 3.5 percent of the U.S. total at that time but would rise to around 6.5 percent today proved to be some yeast for the dough.
“It was more hands on – you could just think of an idea and make it happen,” Biggs says of the marketing website’s flexibility.
Chhoun was more than intrigued.
“We knew this (ivegottohavethat.com) was a viable part of the company, and I just weighed that option. If I didn’t jump in and help, I don’t think the company would have made it this far.”
Biggs agrees. “I would have walked away from it myself if she hadn’t joined in.”
So in September 2009, Biggs and Chhoun formed Jammin Butter as a sole proprietorship (the incorporated as an LLC a year later) with one website. Their products flowed in and out of a cramped space on West Walnut Street. They hustled to find additional vendors, and ingratiated themselves with “Bill” and “Tony” from FedEx, who built a system around their needs.
“They realized our potential,” Biggs says. “They totally took a gamble on us setting up all this stuff, assuming the smoke we were blowing wasn’t just smoke.
“It turned out it succeeded for them, too. We are a very large customer of theirs.”
Indeed, Jammin Butter moved to larger quarters across Walnut, but filled that up quickly and is now situated (since early this year) in 16,000 square feet on Roweland Drive in East Johnson City. Through its seven existing websites, the company pushed more than 70,000 products out in July using FedEx, UPS, the postal service and DHL. Those products run the gamut from pillows and electronics to pet goods and Elvis Presley Mix and Match Magnetic Dress Up wardrobes.
Absurdity with a mission
“It wasn’t really about making money,” Chhoun says of the early days, when the pair would throw a few items up on the initial website just to see what might sell.
“If it sells right away, you might not have any money, but you made a customer,” she says.
Before incorporating as Jammin Butter, Biggs and Chhoun had established the foundations of the company. Find stuff cheap, sell it cheap, have fun in the process and mix in a heaping dose of quirkiness.
“We sold weird stuff, we had real quirky writing,” Biggs says. “I had a lot of very bad/witty technical writing and funny, silly videos.”
Much of that foundation is maintained today, even on the websites that mainly offer utilitarian products in the way of everything from electronics and kitchen wares to bedding. Click a video link, and you’ll likely catch Biggs at his desk hawking anything from a memory foam pillow to vintage comic book signs.
The fun cranks up a notch on some of the sites selling more eclectic wares, such as hoboninja.com. A recent click to the homepage revealed lots of T-shirts for sale (the Jammin Butter crew designs and prints many of them in-house) including a “There is a TIME and a PLACE for DECAF COFFEE. NEVER and in the TRASH” model. The shirts were mixed in with a “Game of Thrones” inspired repositionable toilet decal and a Hillary Clinton nutcracker, along with more useful items such as a pair of noise-cancelling earphones for $4.99.
“We try to make sure and always stay focused on what is making the company money,” Biggs says, “but if we were forced not to dabble in things, we would go crazy. And that’s how you find out what works.”
Early on, Biggs was sourcing products from just a few vendors, and occasionally even just finding stuff at brick and mortar stores so cheaply that if he thought he might be able to sell it for a profit on the website, he would buy it.
“At one point we literally went down to Big Lots, bought some stuff off the shelf and put it on our website,” Biggs recalls, adding that finding vendors is not a simple task.
Chhoun turned her attention to increasing the stable of vendors as the company grew. Websites proliferated and currently stand at seven.
All of that product availability is one thing that keeps Biggs and Chhoun dabbling in new ideas, and keeps their three top behind-the-scenes lieutenants and longtime employees hopping. Those folks are Jimmy Mills on the web/creative side, Danny Flores in logistics and Jessie Wilson in customer service.
Jammin Butter uses a “just in time” concept of procurement, buying products a season in advance instead of a year in advance.
“The moment we pay for it and know it’s on the road to us, we immediately sell it,” Chhoun says. “By the time it actually makes it to us, we already have it shipped out the door.”
Biggs says the business “is seen as a low-margin industry, and it can be, but sometimes it’s high margin. If you buy something for four bucks and sell it for seven, that’s a pretty good margin. It all depends on what we’re selling.”
Jammin Butter has come a long way from the days when Biggs would log in to whatever Wifi hotspot he could find and try to move a few items that he had coded and posted to ivegottohavethat.com. He and Chhoun say they want to maintain a fun environment for themselves and their employees, stay family friendly and not working nights or weekends, and keep it a bit odd.
“I think we can get as big as we want to be,” he says. “At some point you jeopardize the culture of what you’re doing and internal structure of things. We don’t want every night to be a sleepless night, but we’re working on some stuff that should let us grow financially without necessarily growing so much structurally.”