By Sean Leslie

On the morning of Monday, December 18, 2017, Will Warne strolled up to his desk at the BendTECH coworking offices, opened his laptop and checked his email. His eyes widened. Then they widened again.

Instead of the three or four daily emails Will was used to receiving about his startup KidRunner—manufacturer of “the only natural form, multi-terrain jogging stroller”—Will was staring at an inbox virtually overflowing with emails. Hundreds of them. And they were all from parents who wanted to buy a KidRunner.

KidRunner had gone viral.

The Bend startup bills itself as the first high-performance sports equipment intentionally designed for parent runners. The device is effectively a two-wheeled trailer in which children can ride while being pulled by a running parent who is attached via a padded waist belt.

“Our website was blowing up,” Will remembers. “Our Facebook page was blowing up. I’m getting hundreds of emails. I thought, ‘Wow! We’re in! We hit the jackpot!’”

But there was a problem: KidRunner, a company used to receiving only a small amount of web traffic per day, simply couldn’t handle the massive number of site visitors, emails and orders.

“Up to that point, people would come online, see the product and contact me directly. I mean, I was invoicing through PayPal and emailing back and forth a hundred times. When all this happened, we weren’t ready. I mean, we didn’t even know where the traffic was coming from.”

KidRunner had enjoyed some limited visibility after Will appeared with his invention on the television show Shark Tank. But this traffic was the result of a third-party content producer using online footage of a KidRunner to create a short video posted on Facebook. The video was shared 50,000 times within the first day, and total views eventually topped two million.

“It was a tsunami,” Will says. “In 36 hours, it just washed over us, and then everything went back to normal.” But how many KidRunners did they sell over the course of those 36 hours?

“I think we probably sold 14 rigs,” he recalled. “But when you look at the number of people who engaged with us at that time, we closed nothing. Had we closed 1 percent of that traffic, we’d still be out of inventory today.”

Lessons learned

Will still shakes his head when he recalls KidRunner’s viral moment.

“I think what happened is a lot of people got exposed to our brand through that viral media, and when they came into our site it just seemed hokey to them,” he says. “They couldn’t really figure out whether we were a real company, how they would take delivery, how they would pay, when they would get it, or who they needed to talk to. So almost all of those people were scared off or just kind of like, ‘Oh, this isn’t ready yet.’ We thought we were, but we weren’t.”

Will on the NEW KidRunner bike trailer.

The unexpected social media explosion did leave Warne two big takeaways, including how consumer product startups can better prepare for a sudden influx of customers:

  • Make sure your website is ready. “If you’re a B2C company, you have to set your company up online from the start with optimized B2C capabilities. And those skills aren’t organic,” he says. “They’re things that you need to collaborate on with other people who are experts in the B to C environment, people who can help you understand the resources and the technology, and can help you integrate it at an affordable cost so you can actually convert an online sale.
  • Invest in digital marketing. Will notes that great digital marketing is not simply social media posting. Digital marketing is a functional technical skillset that is far more like accounting, or finance or sales operations. It involves a whole domain of expertise, expertise that’s more than just sitting in a hammock and posting on Instagram. That’s not digital marketing. That’s what a 12-year-old does for fun.”

“We didn’t know this, so when the tidal wave hit us, we thought we had an online commerce portal, but we didn’t. We scrambled, and within 18 hours, we had a totally new website up. We had Shopify completely integrated. We had a shopping cart, and we had all the scaffolding of a proper ecommerce platform. But by then, it was too late.”

KidRunner takes off

Today, KidRunner employees a digital marketing professional. Will meets with the consultant every week to discuss ad spends, Google site mapping, analytics, organic search, domain authority and, yes, even social media. The company’s website is optimized for online commerce, including automated email replies to customer inquiries, meaning Warne no longer needs to personally reply to every email KidRunner receives.

The transformation does have some drawbacks.

When I was talking to every single customer on PayPal, by the time they gave me $1,000 for a product, we were friends. I mean, was getting family photos from these people,” Will says. “But the last 20 customers that bought from us, I’ve never heard from them. I see Instagram posts and I get a thank you note, but I’m not getting family photos anymore. And frankly, I miss that.”

However, Will says, that maintaining personal connections with every customer is unlikely as KidRunner sales accelerate. “I miss the photos and everything, but I know that’s the cost of success. It’s the tradeoff we make to get where we’re going.”

And where is KidRunner going?

“We have a radically innovative product,” says Warne. “We’re creating a whole new category. This is not going to be an overnight thing.”

Unless it is, and Will wakes up to again find his inbox crammed with hundreds of KidRunner orders stemming from another viral video. Thankfully for KidRunner, if that does happen, this time the company is ready.

Sean Leslie is a contributor to Startup Bend and president and chief content officer of Cascade Cadence Content Marketing. Contact him at [email protected].