We interviewed Ryan Popoff, of Popov Leather, to discuss how he created a thriving leatherworking business.
What’s your name, your background and what business do you run?
My name is Ryan Popoff and I am the founder of Popov Leather.
Before starting Popov Leather I went to art school in Victoria, BC and majored in sculpture.
How did you come up with the idea?
Leatherwork actually started as a hobby for me.
After graduating from university, I worked as a night auditor for campus residence. This was essentially a glorified babysitter for the dorms. I had a lot of time to kill so I needed to find a hobby. I decided on leatherwork and immediately became obsessed with it. I spent hours watching tutorials on YouTube and then practicing at home.
I wanted to make myself the perfect wallet. Something that didn’t have any branding and was truly minimalistic. I rarely carried cash, but I had a lot of cards. It needed to fit in my front pocket as well. Eventually I perfected this wallet for myself and Gillian (my wife) convinced me to sell it on Etsy.
To my surprise, other people paid me actual money for the wallet I made. This snowballed into making more and buying better tools and materials. I branched out into other goods: belts, book covers, keychains. People kept loving my work and we kept growing.
Is there anything in your past that led to opening the business?
I always hated working for other people. I hated spending all my waking hours focused on a job I didn’t care about. I suppose this describes 99% of us, but I used that resentment as fuel for my entrepreneurial fire.
All the business owners I know started by working a day job and launching their business as a side hustle. I needed this push to keep me going every night ‘til midnight.
“I always hated working for other people. I hated spending all my waking hours focused on a job I didn’t care about…I used that resentment as fuel for my entrepreneurial fire.”
What was the process of designing, manufacturing and bringing your first product or service to market?
As I mentioned, for me it was all about designing that perfect minimalist wallet.
That’s what started my hobby which eventually turned into this business. I spent a lot of time hunched over my dining room table learning leathercraft, scouring forums and youtube videos.
Eventually I got it right and sold it on Etsy.
Etsy was paramount to helping me test and market that very first product and can be a great resource for anyone trying to determine the validity of their product.
You don’t have to do the extra legwork of bringing customers to your goods, since the market is already there.
“Etsy was paramount to helping me test and market that very first product and can be a great resource for anyone trying to determine the validity of their product.”
Describe the process of launching the business and any issues you had at the beginning
The business started mostly by the seat of my pants. I didn’t have any of my “ducks in a row” and learned the ins and outs as I went along. Unfortunately, art school didn’t focus on accounting, search engine optimization or shipping logistics.
All the parts of business that I initially disliked: taxes, business registration (ie. paperwork) I outsourced to our bookkeeper and accountant.
I found the biggest challenge was figuring out shipping. Almost all our customers are from the USA and we’re a Canadian company. Trying to compete with sellers who can ship faster than us was a huge hurdle in the early days. I remember hand-writing each label by hand and walking with garbage bags full of parcels to the post office every week.
“I learned the ins and outs as I went along. Unfortunately, art school didn’t focus on accounting, search engine optimization or shipping logistics”
What strategies or marketing channels do you most rely on?
I rely mostly on word-of-mouth advertising, email and Instagram. Word of mouth is a very big driver of new customers. Customer service is one of the biggest pillars of Popov Leather and people remember us for it. We don’t even have branding on our products, our work speaks for itself and people will tell others about the craftsmanship and how they were treated by us.
What platform, tools or software do you use for your business?
We have our ecommerce platform hosted with Shopify and use a variety of apps to help manage it. Klaviyo stands out as a really powerful tool we use to drive sales primarily through their flows. Email makes up 48% of our monthly revenue.
(Editor – if you’re looking for more great Ecommerce resources, then check this out)
What does the next 12 months look like for your business, and for yourself, professionally?
In the workshop, we are focusing on implementing lean methodologies. Since hiring a production manager to help with operations, we’ve seen our turnaround time go from 2 weeks to 5 days. I am hoping to bring that down even further to 1-2 days. It’s a monumental task, but we have a tremendous hard-working team who love what they do.
“Since hiring a production manager to help with operations, we’ve seen our turnaround time go from 2 weeks to 5 days “
What have you learned through this process that you didn’t know or think was important beforehand?
How important communication was with customers.
Not just on our website and product copy, but whenever a product might be late going out the door. Customers want to trust your business, but you have to earn it first. That means holding your customers’ hands throughout the entire purchase experience.
What do you wish you knew before starting?
Having a firm understanding of basic accounting and finances would have helped me through a lot of sleepless nights. It wasn’t until recently that I started to get serious with my financial literacy.
We now have monthly P&L, balance sheets and an on-going budget & forecast to help inform decision making processes. It allows us to recognize problems and opportunities in advance so we can plan and develop strategies.
What resources would you recommend for others looking to start a business?
There wasn’t a particular book or course I took, but in my early days through to today I still get a lot of joy listening to other entrepreneurs talk about their journeys on podcasts such as “The Unofficial Shopify Podcast” and “Shopify Masters”. There are often little gems you can take away from each episode and are always inspiring to listen to.
Do you have any words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs looking to start their own ecommerce business?
Just get your product out there. Don’t wait until it’s perfect; it will NEVER be perfect I promise.
I know a lot of folks who dwell on the minutiae of every decision they make. Don’t spend hours agonizing over your logo or colors on a website. Those can always be changed – focus on your product or service and focus on making your customers happy. Our logo was literally a scribble on a piece of paper and it hasn’t changed since.
“Just get your product out there. Don’t wait until it’s perfect; it will NEVER be perfect I promise.”