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Editor's note: The Harbert College of Business is committed to developing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for students, faculty, industry, and alumni that will fuel new venture creation. The story that follows is one of eight in a series entitled, "Inspired Entrepreneurship." Showcasing the experience and expertise of Harbert alums who have created successful business enterprises of their own will help equip our students for entrepreneurial success.
Liz Mercer, Founder and CEO of Sleekform, can be described as a serial entrepreneur – she’s well into growing her second successful start-up with no indication she’ll be willing to stop there. In fact, in addition to running the fast-growing ergonomic office furniture and accessories company she founded almost two years ago, Liz has recently ventured out into the public speaking circuit to spread her wisdom on the joys of entrepreneurship.
“I would describe myself as a business major, turned corporate ladder climber, turned location-independent business lover,” notes Mercer. “I am an insatiable learner, traveler, coffee and tea addict and to-do list maker. I love organizing everything, encouraging women to do things they have not thought possible and all-in-all just doing things through a different lens.”
Liz Mercer and her husband, Greg, also an Auburn graduate, founded
She and her husband Greg – also an Auburn grad – founded Jungle Scout in June of 2015 while living in the Philippines on a $25 per day budget. The company, a product research tool for Amazon sellers, provides users with online solutions for tracking products, exploring product opportunities and ideas, monitoring competitor sales data, calculating Fulfillment-by-Amazon fee estimates, and more. She left day-to-day operations at Jungle Scout in March of 2018 to form Sleekform, leaving her husband to manage the company she’d help grow to more than 100 employees in four years.
The Harbert College of Business sat down with Liz as part of its Harbert Entrepreneur Spotlight initiative to hear how a passion to travel the world and an affinity for building a “virtual company” supported by workers across the globe formed the basis for her ongoing entrepreneurial success.
HCOB: Let’s start at the beginning – you graduated from Harbert with a Bachelor of Business Administration, Logistics, Materials and Supply Chain Management, and then went to work for Target, right?
Mercer: That’s right – straight into the corporate world, where I spent the first four years of my career. I loved my job at Target. I was doing well at it and having a great time. And then my husband came home one day and said, “I want to try something different.” So, we talked about traveling the world, starting in Asia, and try to make a living while doing it. I looked at it as a great life experience, and worst-case scenario I could come back to Target. I was doing a good job, I could leave everything in really good hands and if I had to come back, I would be a better person and a better team member for it. We had no children, few obligations, so – why not?
HCOB: Why Asia?
Mercer: We started in the Philippines because the U.S. dollar goes so much further in the Philippines. We were pursuing business opportunities online, so all we needed was a good WiFi connection.
Entrepreneurship takes all forms. Liz, Greg and their team, now
HCOB: How did you come upon the idea for Jungle Scout?
Mercer: Jungle Scout was my husband's brainchild. He is an engineer – always a tinkerer, always looking at things from a lot of different angles. He heard about this thing called retail arbitrage, which is essentially the ability to buy something on sale, let's say, at Target, for 70% off and then offer it for sale on Amazon at full price. We thought there was a business there, but that it was a really labor intensive process – the buying and selling of existing physical goods, receiving and then shipping back out and all that. So, we looked into private labeling where you essentially work with a manufacturer to replicate a popular product and they put your logo on it instead of someone else's – but it's the exact same product. The challenge would be finding which products to private label.
HCOB: And that’s where the idea for Jungle Scout came in?
Mercer: Yes. The problem we were trying to solve for ourselves was determining which products offered the best sales opportunities on Amazon – which products had the biggest gap between pent-up interest and availability. If we knew that, we could weave in the product margin factor and know where to focus our efforts.
HCOB: How did you solve that problem?
Mercer: So, my husband is a data nerd – he loves numbers and he doesn’t like to make a move without the data to back it up. And it turned out that Amazon has this metric called a best seller ranking that tells you how well a given item is selling on Amazon. So, we figured out that we could take that number and couple it with the amount of sales that a given product has in a day and simply plot those points over time to develop a sales demand curve.
It started out as a little extension and it grew into a web app and just took off from there. This whole selling on Amazon was just beginning to become a thing – it was the early days.
HCOB: So, it was, in fact, an algorithm that you turned into a viable product – how did you build that into the business it is today?
Mercer: We found a software developer from an online website called O-desk, now known as Upwork – our entire business model was remote-based back then – and he added a few other developers as we branched out into all the different categories. Now we do it for every category and every Amazon marketplace in the U.S., China, Mexico, Canada, every marketplace is on there. But in the beginning, it was just the .com store.
“Our plan was to be the best at everything we do. Create something new and be the best at it and continue to evolve. We are much more sophisticated in our process now, but in the beginning, it was just like, let's make something great and go from there."”
HCOB: How did you fund all that development work?
Mercer: We bootstrapped it all and have been profitable from day one. My husband pre-sold the original extension. We were members of several Amazon's groups – a retail arbitrage group, private labeling groups, etc. We told fellow group members, “We’re building this tool that can help you do what you’re doing now, but with the data you need to back up your decisions. If you're interested, and put your money up now, you’ll get one of the first licenses. If we don’t make it work, we’ll give you’re your money back.” That’s how we raised the money to pay for the original development work, and it just progressed from there.
HCOB: Did you have a formal business plan at that point?
Mercer: Not really. Our plan was to be the best at everything we do. Create something new and be the best at it and continue to evolve. We are much more sophisticated in our process now, but in the beginning, it was just like, let's make something great and go from there.
HCOB: So today you have around 150 employees at Jungle Scout, right, and you have offices around the globe in addition to your remote workers, right?
Mercer: Yes, we’re headquartered in Austin, Texas now, with 45 people there and another 50 in Vancouver. And there's now a Chinese office, and we still have some remote employees, too.
Liz Mercer found a design for an ergonomic
HCOB: So, the business is humming along nicely, but you wanted to try something else. How did the idea for Sleekform come about?
Mercer: I found a design for an ergonomic chair on Amazon that was selling well, but it was getting poor reviews, which I found really interesting – a prime opportunity. So, I said to myself, “What can I do differently? What can I do better?” I’ve always had a love for everything wellness related. So, I visited a few of the factories that produced the original chair, made a few tweaks to the design, and started making and selling that first product for Sleekform.
HCOB: But you didn’t have any experience in furniture design, did you?
Mercer: No, I didn’t. In the beginning, that expertise came from the subcontract manufacturers I was working with. I now work with a product designer in-house, but back then it was just the manufacturers themselves. We now have a whole suite of chairs and office accessories we’ve selected based on sales demand insights from Jungle Scout – we use our tool to decide which products to target for which markets, arrange manufacturing and off we go.
HCOB: How did your time at Harbert prepare you for all this entrepreneurial success?
Mercer: My time at Auburn really gave me some great ideas, some great boundaries, some great insights into business. I graduated with a degree in supply chain management, so that education is incredibly applicable to what I do now – making products, moving products internationally, working with different customs across different borders. That background was incredible.
Liz Mercer and her husband, Greg, believe in giving back -- and in the
And my professors are the ones that I really give all the credit to, especially Joe Hanna and Brian and Marcia Gibson. I immediately liked the way they spoke about their topics, their excitement, their ability to tie what we were learning in the classroom to the real world. And the Auburn Creed played a role as well.
HCOB: How so?
Mercer: The Creed was everywhere – at football games, in the classroom – it wasn’t just words. It gets under your skin and becomes part of you. My favorite line is “I believe in work hard work.” I mean, if you're not working hard, what are you doing?
HCOB: In closing, what advice would you give students and young professionals looking to go the entrepreneurship route?
Mercer: Give it a shot, give it a try. People will tell you not to, but if you just believe in yourself, people will believe in you in return. So, believe in yourself first and the rest will come.