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Episode 002 : Ben Koren, Frameology.com

· ecommerce

Our guest this week is Ben Koren, the Founder/CEO of Frameology.com.Frameology is an online seller of hand crafted picture frames, combining technology with a “fine-art quality” printing process and hand-crafted frames to produce the finest photo products available.

We talk with Ben about the origins of Frameology. We also discuss the benefits of working with family and his discoveries of finding his true client base through user testing, and what’s next for Frameology.

Hosted and Produced by SUMO Heavy’s Creative Director, John Suder. An abridged transcript of the show follows below.

[ Full disclosure: SUMO Heavy is a technology partner of Frameology. ]

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John Suder: Ben, why don’t you give us the 30-second elevator pitch about Frameology and how you got into selling frames online.

Ben Koren: Sure. So Frameology is a website that allows you to upload your photo and select one of many very beautiful frames and we deliver to you framed, printed, in beautiful packaging in about a week or under.

Basically the problem that we were trying to solve for in the beginning — my family has been in the frame business forever and online we found that really photo products — if you’re going to do something with a photo, it’s because that photo’s really special, but all of the other sites out there had cheap feeling, poorly branded products that didn’t, in my opinion, and in most of our customer’s opinions, didn’t do justice to what they were trying to accomplish, either preserving a very important memory of theirs or giving that as a gift that is supposed to impress.

So leveraging my family’s experience in framing, we put together this site that has really two main differentiating features. The first is ease of use, we made it extremely easy to do everything with help from our friends at SUMO, they played a big part in that. And second really is the quality of the end product. We believe it’s a level above and beyond everybody else in the industry.

John Suder: I understand this is a family business. Can you get into a little bit more about that, about the dynamics?

Ben Koren: I co-founded the company with my father. My father owns a high-end picture frame store on the Upper East side of Manhattan. He’s been doing that for over 30 years now. So when I grew up, I would on breaks from school, like summer and during Christmas break, I would always work at my dad’s store. It was on Madison Avenue and all these very cool famous people would walk in, like Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson would be wearing some bizarre mask and I as a kid would be selling frames to these people.

So it was never anything I thought I’d go into, but I was working in technology investment banking and I wanted to buy a framed photo for my girlfriend for Valentine’s Day. And I went online — I obviously knew where to buy a frame — but being a millennial, the idea of having to print it out myself and getting a frame even though I knew exactly where to get it, was just too much for me. So I went online and I was like “I’m going to buy something online” and I was just shocked at how nothing had the level of quality, nothing was nice. I wanted to impress her and there was nothing that would’ve impressed her. So I started thinking about my dad’s business products. He sold and thought really we could do something above and beyond better and that’s kind of how it all started.

John Suder: You saw a problem and you solved it, which is the typical way of starting a successful business. So now that you’re into it, you’ve built the site, what makes Frameology different from the other retailers besides — I guess the major differentiator would be the customization; what else?

Ben Koren: Ease of use and then again, the quality of the product. A lot of other people online sell very, very low end frames, the prints are pretty bad quality, and that’s kind of the standard before we arrived.

We have very, very longstanding relationships with suppliers that allow us to offer a much higher quality product at a better price. And then recently there have been a bunch of people who come online that do custom framing where you’ll send them a piece of artwork that they’ll then custom frame for you and they’ll have lowered the price point on custom framing.

But still if you’re doing photos, which is what we specifically focus on, you can custom print a photo to fit a pre-made frame. And what that allows us to do is offer it at a much better price, one, and then two, have a much higher quality product because instead of spending money on somebody custom building every single frame which costs a lot of money, our frames are built in factories generally by people that have — it’s a lot of family run businesses, most of them in the United States, and they do it in a more industrial process because it’s standardized.

So where you gain is either in a better price or often we have materials in sterling silver an gold-plated, stuff like that, which comes out at a similar price point to the custom stuff, but you’re obviously getting gold or silver, which a lot of people like.

John Suder: And how about the photo? The thing that interests me is I do a lot of photography, so if I come in to your site and I have a weird photo, would I be able to crop a piece of a photo out and just use that? And would the resolution still retain?

Ben Koren: Yep. So we control for resolution on the site. It’s super easy, you can just drag the photo within the frame to crop it. And if your photo is too low resolution, we’ll notify you and obviously if you hit us up on customer service we can help you figure it out.

John Suder: So it’ll flag it if I accidentally upload a lower resolution photo, it’ll flag it and tell me “Hey, this isn’t good enough”?

Ben Koren: Yeah, totally. One of the tweaks we made is we used to not allow it if it was really low resolution, but we found that some people had something that they only had a really low resolution photo of, so we shifted recently to just flagging it and allowing you to go forward if you want. But we definitely notify you.

John Suder: So in other words “I only have this fuzzy photo of my father, please let me print this” …

Ben Koren: Yeah, “but it’s the only one, so I’ll deal with it being fuzzy”.

John Suder: You said your father started the business. Is that business still intact?

Ben Koren: Yeah, it’s on 77th and Lexington.

John Suder: What’s that called? I don’t think you mentioned the name.

Ben Koren: It’s called Framed on Madison because it was originally on Madison Avenue and 65th, but he moved over and it retained the name. It’s still there going strong.

John Suder: I love the name. So how did he feel about you starting an online frame business? Does he look at you as a competitor or is it all in the family and everything is just “kumbaya”?

Ben Koren: I guess in a way I am totally a competitor. Yeah, we are 100 percent a competitor to Framed on Madison, but he owns a big part of the company, so that mitigates the … They’re separate companies, he’s a partner and co-founder of Frameology.

John Suder: So there wasn’t really a transition from the bricks and mortar to the online. It’s a separate business and since your father is invested then you don’t have uncomfortable Thanksgivings.

Ben Koren: Absolutely.

John Suder: Let’s dive in a little more about technology. What platform is the site currently on?

Ben Koren: It’s on Magento. Community edition.

John Suder: What’s your biggest challenge so far in running the site?

Ben Koren: It’s a start-up, so there had been many challenges at different parts of the evolution of the business. In the very beginning it was getting the user experience right. We did a ton of iteration. So that was one of the early challenges, kind of getting the back end operation running smoothly. Increasing the speed of how we were getting orders out, that was a challenge of course. And now we’re really focusing on … We’ve got the business humming along now, it’s focusing on really automating a lot of those processes and getting more efficient and continuing to grow.

John Suder: So when you’re talking about the challenges of when you were first building the site, if we could take a step back, you were talking about user experience. Were you doing A-B testing or were you doing any user testing that really gave you some feedback as to what you were doing right and what you were doing wrong?

Ben Koren: Yeah, we didn’t do A-B testing, but we did do a ton of user testing. We did a very in depth project about a year ago. We launched about a year and a half ago, it was at the end of the summer of 2015, and right away we went into the holiday season. So with our business the entire year is made in Q4. 

That’s industry wide.

We went through our first Christmas. We had this explosion in demand, we were scrambling to get everything out and then we had this great opportunity afterwards. We had some significant volume to analyze what went well and what went not so well.

We had a consultant who specialized in UX do a series of interviews and user testing of different prototypes that involved shifting certain things on the site. We interviewed 15 people, both current customers and potential customers that hadn’t bought from us yet. We did the whole user profiling and that really informed a tremendous amount of decisions. It informed not just the front end of the site, which we made a significant number of changes, but it also informed our product selection. We ended up shifting significantly based on our new understanding of who our customers were. The actual products we had on the site and price points and all of those things.

John Suder: That’s really interesting and I think a lot of e-commerce retailers don’t put the effort into doing that kind of testing. The testing itself, was it all online or was it in person testing?

Ben Koren: We did that in person. We actually did some through that site user testing, but we found the in person was way better because it allows you to follow up on questions.

John Suder: Sure and you were able to interview the people live. That was money well spent.

Ben Koren: This is maybe an interesting point for some of your listeners out there, but when we launched, we had this image in our head, it was really an assumption, we didn’t question it. But we thought ‘Hey, we’re going to essentially put Framed on Madison online’. My father’s customers tend to be older and pretty wealthy because it’s on the Upper East side so we were like ‘Okay, we’re going to do a premium site for people who want to spend 150 dollars on a beautiful sterling silver frame from Italy,’ and that was kind of how we went into it. What we found out was that by far our best customers are millennials. Which that was a pretty amazing realization and that obviously informed a lot of the changes.

John Suder: Was there a disconnect from Framed on Madison versus Frameology? Basically what you’re saying is that the millennial audience, which is your target, didn’t connect with Framed on Madison?

Ben Koren: No, it was the opposite. We thought we were going to be selling to older people and the older people didn’t come. They didn’t come to the website. And really the main reason is that most of the people on the internet searching for our products were younger.

John Suder: You thought you had the niche audience, i.e. the older, wealthy crowd when in fact it was quite the opposite.

Ben Koren: Yeah. I was solving my own problem, and I’m a millennial, but somehow we thought ‘Okay, we’re solving the problem of my father’s generation’. But it turns out we were just solving a problem our generation had.

John Suder: And what you’re saying is you discovered that through user testing, correct?

Ben Koren: Yeah, we put it out there, we got feedback and then we did a really, really in-depth user testing project and those were the conclusions we came to. We made a whole bunch of tweaks based on those conclusions and the business has not stopped growing since then. It never stopped growing, but definitely an increase in the pace of everything.

John Suder: Without divulging exactly how much it costs, obviously it was money well spent, but at what point do you think an e-commerce store owner should do something like this?

Ben Koren: From the very beginning. I wish we’d done it in the beginning. At least some form of it. For me as a first time founder, it was an education that I had to have, that I guess real life thrust me into. But I wish I had known beforehand that the number one thing is really go out there and talk to people. That should be your number one priority in the very beginning.

John Suder: How are your sales? Can you divulge anything about that?

Ben Koren: Yeah, we don’t divulge numbers, we’re a private company, like actual sales numbers, but our growth right now is … Last month if you kind of smooth out holidays because holidays are obviously huge, but we’re growing 30 percent a month.

John Suder: That’s really great. So where are your customers coming from? How are you doing customer acquisition?

Ben Koren: It is mostly search and we see a fair amount of word of mouth as well.

John Suder: Word of mouth via what?

Ben Koren: So a lot of this conclusion is anecdotally, we see people with the same last names or people who are receiving as gifts and then making purchases afterwards.

John Suder: Your customers are acquiring customers for you.

Ben Koren: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got about 50 percent of the purchases on our site are gifts, so that’s a one X. One customer will at least let one other person know about us on those purchases. But we see a ton of new customers coming in direct and then you can kind of figure … it’s not 100 percent scientific, that conclusion, but we feel comfortable that’s where it’s coming from.

John Suder: You said you’re doing some search marketing? Is it just paid ads through Google or how are you doing that?

Ben Koren: Yep. We’re doing SEO and PPC.

John Suder: And that’s all right now?

Ben Koren: Yeah, we’ve done some Facebook stuff around more of the gift-giving holidays, but we find what really works well for us is the PPC stuff.

John Suder: Even above a targeted niche Facebook campaign?

Ben Koren: Yeah. We have done those, but we still find that PPC works by far the best.

John Suder: What’s next for Frameology?

Ben Koren: Not taking the foot off the gas pedal of growth. We have been getting recently into some more B-to-B type work, framing stuff for other people and kind of being a back end; a number of people that actually frame diplomas, like schools, which has been a really interesting niche because for them it makes total sense because not only does it make their alumni proud, it’s the most genuine type of marketing for a school possible. It’s in somebody’s house, right? Somebody that’s proud of what they did, so that’s been something that we’ve been getting a ton of interest in recently. And we’re building some other stuff that’s going to be really interesting on the B-to-B front, kind of powering framing for other people.

John Suder: That’s really great for you guys that you’re building a separate revenue stream through licensing. Do you do affiliate marketing or anything like that or is that something you’re thinking about getting into?

Ben Koren: Yeah, we’ve done some of that as well.

John Suder: Here’s an easy question. What’s the first thing you’ve ever bought online?

Ben Koren: A book. That’s probably pretty boring.

John Suder: What book was that?

Ben Koren: I don’t remember.

John Suder: Was it from a site that starts with an ‘A’?

Ben Koren: Yeah it was from a site that starts with an ‘A’ and I think it was fiction.

John Suder: All right so boring Ben bought a fiction book on Amazon.com as his first online purchase.

Ben Koren: Yeah. Does Columbia Music Club count as online? I guess that was like a …

John Suder: You’re not that old.

Ben Koren: Now I’m dating myself.

John Suder: Yeah, seriously. Ben, how can people reach you?

Ben Koren: Best way is e-mail: Ben {at} frameology.com.

John Suder: Awesome. Ben, thanks for being with us. It’s been great talking to you and everyone: go out there and buy some frames!

Ben Koren: Yes, please!

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