#95: Selling Heavy Building Materials? Here's the Secret

by Smarter Building Materials Marketing

COVID has changed everything, from the way we live, socialize, and shop, the way building materials manufacturers and distributors are reaching their customers. Whereas e-commerce used to be a “nice to have” feature, now it’s expected. But does it work for every part of the building materials sector?

More About This Episode

On this week’s episode, Zach talks to Carson Combs, Founder at Zenbuild, about how, if he can incorporate e-commerce into selling some of the heaviest building products out there, you can work it into your sales strategy too.

Transcript

Zach Williams:

We talk a lot about e-commerce here on Smarter Building Materials Marketing and how it is changing the way products are sold. With everything that's happened with COVID we've seen a tremendous increase in the amount of products being sold online which is causing many manufacturers to level up their e-commerce efforts. And here's the hard truth I want to impress upon you today, is that for many building product categories, if you're not selling your products online, your customers are going to go find someone else who is, which is why I'm excited about today's episode because we bring on a manufacturer who's found a way to incorporate e-commerce into their sales strategy, and they figured out how to do it for some of the heaviest products on the market. So if you're thinking, "Oh, I can't sell my product online because it's too heavy," this is an excellent episode for you. All right, let's get into the show.

Voiceover:

Welcome to the Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast, helping you find better ways to grow leads, sales, and outperform your competition. And now here are your hosts, Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov.

Zach Williams:

Hi, everybody, welcome to Smarter Building Materials Marketing, where we believe your online presence should be your best salesperson. I am Zach Williams and we have a great show planned for you today. We have here Carson Combs who's the founder of Zenbuild, and it's an online retailer of brick products. We got connected recently and I got on the phone with you and I was just oohing and aahing because I was just like, "Man, this is just an incredible business model and I think you're really pushing the industry forward." I'd love to just start out with just maybe share with us a little bit about your story and how you got into this building product space, and then share with us about Zenbuild.

Carson Combs:

Yeah, no problem. Yeah. A great conversation. Happy to be on your show, Zach. Had the chance to listen to several of the podcasts prior. And yeah, it was just great where you're digging into where we are in the trenches every day. And you're doing it with multiple sectors in the construction industry, and our niche primarily is brick and thin brick. We're going into other areas now, too, but I've been in the industry for 16 years and started for a traditional brick and mortar location, and I did commercial sales. So I worked with developers, hospitals, condominium projects, multi-family, and went from that company to an acquisition that happened in '07, that best year-

Zach Williams:

Best year ever, right?

Carson Combs:

... in construction materials. '07, yeah. That's the cold sweat dreams that we wake up and go, "God, I'm glad I'm not there anymore." And that company was bought in '07 and the company that bought us unfortunately didn't weather the recession. It was acquired by a larger company in 2012. And after my stint in doing it, I've always had the entrepreneurial spirit, my grandmother owned a grocery store when I was a little kid, and just had this desire and had enough experience in the field that said, "I can do this on my own." And went home and told my wife. And she went, "Oh, hell. What?"

Zach Williams:

What do you want to do?

Carson Combs:

I know, what are you going to do? And downsized the house, moved my two children and my wife and I into a small condominium, and we started out of our garage.

Zach Williams:

You went all in.

Carson Combs:

We went all in. Bought old cars, no credit card debt, got liquid.

Zach Williams:

Your wife must really love you.

Carson Combs:

She is my biggest cheerleader and supporter.

Zach Williams:

That's awesome.

Carson Combs:

That's a great, great observation. But I started doing the same thing I had done for the previous company, commercial sales in the greater Chattanooga area and North Georgia and Alabama. Ran into a little issue with the company that had bought us in a non-compete I'd signed years prior and got in a position where I couldn't do anything within a radius of my hometown. So we get started hitting that million mark in those first couple of months, and then we were very specifically told we couldn't do that. So we were put in a spot where we had to think outside the box, and that's what led to what is today Zenbuild. And so we got online and started tinkering around with Google and running some ads and products.

Zach Williams:

You're just testing things out, just seeing what sticks.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. And we knew from other, again, sectors in the economy, T-shirts and hats and... Hell, Netflix was sending me DVDs because we couldn't afford to go out and do anything else. So, we're sitting there and I just got thinking, "There's nobody in the e-commerce space in my industry." And because I had done commercial projects, we would always direct ship from the plant direct to the job site. And that made a lot of sense to me, whereas the traditional manner was you pick it up at a plant, you bring it into a yard, you unload it. Then it gets moved around on the yard, then eventually gets put back on an outbound truck to go to a job site. And so cost, every time you're picking up... Brick's heavy, a cube of brick weighs a ton, literally.

Zach Williams:

Literally, does it?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. And so it just made a lot of sense to me and so we started trying things. And that first customer came in and it was a small little baseball coach somewhere in Kentucky, I don't recall where. He was like, "Man, I'm doing a backstop. I'm out in the middle of nowhere. I'm just looking for some product," and we were able to help him. And from that point up until we launched the new site, Zenbuild in June of 2019, we had had a little over 5,000 projects nationwide.

Zach Williams:

Wow. Congrats. That's huge.

Carson Combs:

Thank you. We have learned a lot. And ultimately, beyond matching product and bringing the industry into the 21st century, we move heavy product across the country. That's what we know and that's what we do. And so when we launched zenbuild.com we actually changed our name from Brickhunter which was our previous name, to Zenbuild because the thought process was, if we can move brick effectively across the country, what else can we...

Zach Williams:

What else can you do?

Carson Combs:

Right. And so that's why... Listening to your podcasts and my experience and everything else, you're keying into the same conversations that we've had for the last several years with manufacturers and in our brick industry and stone and related industries in that online is growing so quickly and no one in that sector really goes, "Hey, we need to hire a director of e-commerce."

Zach Williams:

You're starting to see it. But, I mean, how far behind is building products?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. That, unfortunately, is sad because you look at... Building products are tied into the fabric of everyone's life, where we eat, where we sleep, where we work, where our kids go to school, where we go out for beers, all those things, there's building materials tied into that. And so it's so prevalent all around us that you would think for innovative products is... As uninnovative as brick is, as people think it is, it's a 10,000 year old product, it's on some of the most amazing buildings in the world. And so our passion for it kind of translates when we talk to our customers, but it's just great to be here on your show. And then also just see that there's other people out there, too, that are cheerleading the same thing across the industry.

Zach Williams:

It's my people, right? My people.

Carson Combs:

My people. You're part of my tribe, Zach. You're in my tribe, man. There we go.

095 living room with brick fireplace

Source

Zach Williams:

You know what I love about your story, Carson, is, so many times when you look at successful businesses, they've gone to an area where people say, "Oh, that's not possible," or, "That's too difficult." Whenever someone says like, "Oh, that's not possible," or, "That's too difficult," there's a business to be had there. And people said, "Well, you can't ship brick. It's too expensive or too heavy. Oh, you can't ship brick, no one's going to do it. No one's going to go online and buy it."

Carson Combs:

Right.

Zach Williams:

Do you know how much search intent has increased for exterior products online on Google in the last four years? I was doing research on this. Do you have any idea?

Carson Combs:

No. I'd love to know. For our sector I have a pretty good idea, but I'd be interested.

Zach Williams:

It's between 35 and 65% across the board.

Carson Combs:

Wow.

Zach Williams:

Whether you sell roofing, exterior siding, decking, whatever it is, search intent. I go to Google. I searched for your product on Google. It's up 35 to 65%. So people say, "Oh, well, no one's looking for my product online. No one's going to buy it online." That's not what the data says.

Carson Combs:

No. No, the data doesn't lie. It's hard to rationalize because manufacturers of building materials are typically coming from an engineering or data background. How do we get to economies of scale? How do we get shrinkage down on this production run? How do we get our timeline and push through the whole process better? And when they see that, I think there's just a barrier. I was thinking about this after I listened to one of your podcasts. I was like, "I remember reading a book." I can't remember which book it was, but it was about Kodak, and you know how Kodak had the opportunity to go digital.

Zach Williams:

Oh yeah, they did. And they were the first ones to what? To literally invent or discover, is that right? Digital cameras, right?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. And they're like, "Look, our core business is in film and developing film and these cameras." And I'm like, the whole disruption of that industry, which is adjacent but it's still a part of the US economy, just literally flipped in a short amount of time because the guys that were at the helm who should have been thinking not next quarter, next year, but five and 10 years down the road, were like, "Ah, that'll never work."

Zach Williams:

It's true. I was talking to somebody recently about a particular category within building products. And they're like, "Why hasn't somebody gone out and just completely disrupted this online?" And I said, "I think the issue is the fact that these people in leadership are only looking at their bonus or looking at the revenue that year. They're looking at this quarter, looking at this year, they don't have the foresight." I don't mean this as a criticism, it's just the reality of the world that we live in. To really change the industry you've got to have years' worth of vision. You're looking at this like not as just a this year thing. You're looking at what are you going to do three, five, 10 years from now, right?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. 100%. I mean, we were very fortunate after we'd had that many projects, we had investors come in to help us build out the platform because they saw... You're talking about the data from searching.

Zach Williams:

Did they see that? Did they look at it and go, "Look what's going on there?" Yeah.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. And the fact is, in my mind and my belief is, is in less than 10 years, one out of two purchases in building materials will be done through a digital manner.

Zach Williams:

Oh, I think you're right.

Carson Combs:

That might be e-commerce. It might be a co-op between e-commerce and outbound salespeople. But it's coming. I mean, Home Depot's invested what? 13 billion in e-commerce?

Zach Williams:

It's something crazy. Oh, yeah, easily.

Carson Combs:

And Lowe's is trying to catch up, and Amazon's kind of sitting over here, tinkering.

Zach Williams:

They're just going to buy somebody. They're going to buy them out.

Carson Combs:

I'm waiting to read the paper that they bought Lowe's. I could see that happening.

Zach Williams:

I thought it would be Lowe's or True Value or maybe Ace Hardware, because it's that distribution game. Are you familiar with SiteOne? Have you heard of SiteOne before?

Carson Combs:

Yeah, I have, yeah.

Zach Williams:

Their model is so smart. It's like, "Let's take Amazon and let's bring it to landscapers."

Carson Combs:

Right.

Zach Williams:

Super smart.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. And you think... I don't know who the founder or the group guys were with SiteOne, but it's no different than my thoughts staring at the ceiling when I knew I couldn't sell here locally and I had a two-year timeframe. I had to figure out how to feed my family. I was like, "What am I going to do?" And you start thinking, and that's when you get away from the, "What's the sales going to be this month? What's it going to be this quarter? What's it going to be this year? What's it going to be next year?" You start going, "I got to hustle. I got to figure this out." And I think it's epiphany, and some of the manufacturers... What's been really exciting for us is, since launch we've had 30% of the manufacturers across the entire country on board on our platform, which is a huge [crosstalk 00:11:46] for us.

Zach Williams:

Wow. Congrats.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. Thank you. And the ones that get it, really have gotten it once they saw the new site. They saw product fully functioning in e-commerce fashion. And prior to that, we just had a catalog website up, which a lot of the manufacturers or distributors or wholesalers who are listening to your show, have. It's a catalog site, which is great. But, if you're in that customer segment that's searching online looking for product, that funnel from where you come in to then where you go is so fragmented, you have to maybe email someone and hope to get a response. You may have to call. And the ones that have at least online chat, kudos to them.

Zach Williams:

Yeah, that's true. I was driving through... There's this brick manufacturer, actually probably near where you live. I was driving through their brick yard and they have, gosh, it looks like they have hundreds of thousands of bricks and inventory. And it is huge stacks. Like that ton stack that you're talking about? And each stack is a different style brick. Can you imagine being a homeowner or a DIY or even a contractor and trying to figure out exactly what kind of brick you want? I was thinking about you in advance of the show and I was like, "Man, probably the reason why your business model is working so well, is that to see style and aesthetic for your kind of product out in the wild, it's difficult."

Carson Combs:

Right.

Zach Williams:

Because you've got to stock all the inventory as a dealer, or you've got to go to a massive dealer network or something like that. You've got to go somewhere they have a ton of inventory, and you're like, "Oh, just go online." You can see all the thousands that you have, see in context, see it close-up, see it zoomed in, see it on a house. And you do it like this. It's quick. Right?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. In seconds. And that's one of the things that we brought in. But you talk about problems, right?

Zach Williams:

Yeah.

Carson Combs:

For us, one of our largest problems is, brick and thin brick, and these products are tactile, and you see them and a customer wants to see a sample of it.

Zach Williams:

Do you do samples?

Carson Combs:

We do. And the way the industry does it is very old school. So a sample gets ordered and it'll take a week, two weeks to get to, not the end user or the architect or the contractor, maybe the wholesaler or distributor who gets it. And then that person has to take it out or call the customer. And I mean, we're in an on-demand economy. When I order something or I request something, I want a tracking number. I want to see it. And when we started, we were running the same issues and we joke here. We say, "A sample leads to a sale," because the customer sees it. And what we did is we said, "Hey, we're going to send a UPS label to the manufacturer and have them ship it direct to our customer." Then that customer has the same experience they have when they're on Amazon or they buy something on Target or they buy something anywhere else online, they get a tracking number and they go, "Oh, okay, that's coming in."

Zach Williams:

And here's when I can expect it.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, that's the kind of a slow gradual process of moving building materials through to projects. The project managers that are coming up on the commercial side and the homeowners and the home builders... Look, this next generation, if they don't get a phone call back from Bob, they're like, "Screw, Bob, I'm going online."

Zach Williams:

They're going to somewhere else.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. Yeah. And they're not going to drive 20, 30 miles to go do something that they can pick up their iPhone or their Android and go, "Okay. Oh, wow. And look, there's transparent pricing."

Zach Williams:

It's convenience.

Carson Combs:

It's convenient. Yeah. I have everything I need here to make a buying decision. And I think therein lies the big opportunity for manufacturers, whether they work with a platform like Zenbuild, or they develop their own e-commerce strategy, you are not just reaching a homeowner that you think might buy one unit. You're reaching millions of people.

Zach Williams:

Truth. What's your conversion rate from sample to purchase? Can I ask?

Carson Combs:

25%.

Zach Williams:

Somebody buys or gets a sample. The likelihood that they're going to actually buy from you is 25%. Is that the main KPI you're looking at? Like, the more samples we get, the more sales we're going to get? Like when you look at your funnel?

Carson Combs:

It's not the main, but it's definitely one of our KPIs because you look at conversion, right? What it costs to bring a customer in. A great question. Anybody listening, what does it cost to get that customer?

Zach Williams:

CPA, right? The cost per acquisition. Yeah.

Carson Combs:

Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, you look at that acquisition cost and most people go, "Uh, that's... I don't know. How does that work?" Yeah. It's just like awkward silence.

Zach Williams:

How do you measure marketing? You've got to know.

Carson Combs:

50% works, 50% doesn't. That's, unfortunately, sales are up so I guess marketing is working. Sales are down, I guess marketing is not working. We need to cut marketing. It's not working.

095 thin brick arch

Source

Zach Williams:

You know what I think is really cool, Carson? I know I'm going to brag on you here, but you could make an argument that you're not a brick company, but you're a technology company that sells brick.

Carson Combs:

I would 100% agree. We are a technology company.

Zach Williams:

Yeah. And I think that's really cool. And so I love for you to share from your perspective, if we've got a manufacturer or a dealer or somebody in the building product space, listening, what advice would you give them? You've got a pretty good vantage point. You built this business. You see, you're trying to look at what's ahead. What advice would you give to anybody listening to the show?

Carson Combs:

The two. So, on your dealer side, I would tell every dealer of any building material product, first thing you need to do is get online chat up on your website. How many people are sitting there answering phones for the people who call in? Have someone do that. And granted, you guys close at 5:00 so nobody's going to do it after hours. But if you're a small dealer or distributor, turn that laptop on while you're at home and sit there and watch your Netflix and answer those customers' questions because the buying cycle, 5:00 o'clock, it goes all hours of the day.

Zach Williams:

Do you see it go up? Are you seeing it go up in the evenings?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. We see traffic increase massively after 5:00 p.m.

Zach Williams:

That's so cool. That's fascinating.

Carson Combs:

And it kind of dies down. Granted we're across the entire United States. So West Coast, it goes in later, but we see that traffic pickup. People are off work, they're onto their next project. So for the dealers or wholesalers that have traditional brick and mortar locations and inventory, I would say, number one, at least do that and see what type of revenue that generates for you over a 12-month period. Second I would tell them, get online, just get a Shopify site. It's pretty simple.

Zach Williams:

Get it up. Yeah. And it's true.

Carson Combs:

Put a couple of products up there and just put that you're servicing this geographical area. It's 20 miles, 50 miles around there, around their yard. And here's your delivery fee and kind of go there. On the manufacturing side I would tell them probably a little bit of the same, but then also talk about... You look at Sony, you look at any of these other manufacturers of products, you can still go to Walmart or Target or Best Buy and buy those products and touch them and feel them. But those manufacturers also did, like what you said, manufacturer suggested retail price and they're online and not... I don't know if they share that data, but it'd be interesting to see how many products are bought online as opposed to how many are bought in those physical stores.

Carson Combs:

And so, for manufacturers, I would say, if you don't really want to take a bite out of the e-commerce apple and do it yourself, there's a lot of companies out there and agencies that they can direct you in that right path, and it's not hard. It's not hard. And you've got to really decide, "Am I going to hold onto a distribution channel that we've had for 50, 75, 100 years, and just hope that my business continues to grow?" Or are you going to think outside the box and go, "I'm still going to stay with the guys. I'm going to still stay with Bob because we've been with Bob for 25 years, but I'm going to try online because 65% of exterior materials and doors, roofing..." I mean, that's insane. I didn't realize it was that high.

Zach Williams:

Oh yeah. It's pretty wild. It's wild. Yeah. We were looking from 2016 to 2020. Every year it's like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It's wild.

Carson Combs:

And for those manufacturers as well because a lot of them do work with Home Depot and Lowe's and I'm sure Amazon has reached out to some of them as well. And there's other companies in the space as well. But Home Depot and Lowe's are always thinking about the guy that opens his jacket and he's got what you want. And I respect and have learned a lot off of watching those two giants battle each other. I mean, think about, Home Depot 40 years ago-

Zach Williams:

Oh, there's an article I reference all the time. Three years ago Home Depot had their best quarter ever. Best quarter ever. You know what Wall Street did? They knocked them like three to five points because they're like, "We don't care you had your best quarter ever." Can you imagine being in a boardroom? They had their best quarter ever and Wall Street's like, "We don't care." And they said, "We don't think you're Amazon proof." So what do they do? They go out, they spend $1.2 billion in supply chain overhaul. And then this year I think their stock prices rose like crazy.

Carson Combs:

You've got to respect them. Ken Langone. I read his... I think it's I Love Capitalism! last year. And he's just a scrappy guy and talking about how they raised... I think it was like $2 million is what they raised, him and the other two owners. He was the broker putting the deal together. He was just thinking ahead, and just like those guys did in thinking about geographically putting stores both on Depot and Lowe's all across the country to service customers and create a national brand. Manufacturers that are working with those guys, that's fantastic. They're embracing e-commerce. Those that aren't or aren't even in the space that Home Depot is really toying in or Lowe's, this is a way to be Ken and Bernie and the guys from Home Depot years ago were like, "Hey, this could be really big."

Zach Williams:

That kind of foresight. Yeah.

Carson Combs:

And that's part of the gospel that we preach when we talk to the manufacturers. And again, I am grateful and very blessed to have some amazing people on the manufacturing side that I've had relationships with for over a decade gone. Yeah, yeah. This is part of our future. Our next 100 years is going to embrace e-commerce. And I think that's what I would tell manufacturers and I'd also hit on the dealers, "Guys, just do a little bit. Make it easy for your customer." Because it's not just the homeowner that you think is going to be a pain in the ass. Your commercial contractors and your architects and everyone else, they shop and research online everything else. Why should they not be able to do it, get transparent pricing and get your product? Make it easy for them, just make it easy. It's so simple.

Zach Williams:

That's great. Well, Carson, man, thank you so much for coming on the show. If someone wants to get in contact with you, what's the best way for them to do that?

Carson Combs:

Yeah. They can email me at [email protected] That's [email protected], or they can give me a call (423) 593-0957. That's my cell. If I get a bunch of telemarketers, call me-

Zach Williams:

They blame me.

Carson Combs:

... I'm blaming you that... I'm sending them to your agency.

Zach Williams:

Carson, again, thank you so much, man. This has been awesome. And if you want more good content like this, go to venveo.com/podcast. Until next time, I'm Zach Williams. Thanks everybody.

Voiceover:

You've been listening to Smarter Building Materials Marketing with Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov. To get the resources mentioned in this podcast, visit venveo.com/podcast. Thank you for listening.

Related Blogs