Maybe it was the whip that cut into the elephant’s skin.
Or the chains that shackled its neck and feet.
But the painful story of captivity and exploitation, a narrative Nathan Coleman says he saw in the tears welling up in an elephant’s eyes, also hurt him in a way that would one day inspire a business and an uprising that would make a difference in the lives of elephants worldwide.
“These were sad elephants, and you could see that through the tears in their eyes,” Coleman recalls.
It was 2013, and Coleman was on vacation in Thailand doing many of the things tourists are told they ought to do. One of those activities led Coleman to a so-called elephant sanctuary that offered tourists cheap rides atop elephants.
“Elephants are very much like humans, they’re emotional and will cry when they’re upset,” Coleman says.
The tears were abundant.
The seats on which people rode, according to Coleman, dug into the elephants’ backs. And the sticks with which the elephants were whipped not only left marks on their skin, but also on Coleman’s heart.
“I left feeling horrible,” he says. “This was no way for them to live. Elephants are nice creatures, and I couldn’t bear to let them live like this.”
But getting people to care just as deeply as Coleman about animals that are thousands of miles away and may never be seen in person would prove to be difficult.
Could ecommerce be used as a life-saving link?
The Missing Link: Pants
Besides the horrible memories of elephants being mistreated, Coleman returned home with a collection of flamboyant harem pants that caught his eye in Thailand. The pants were stylish but more importantly, Coleman suggests, they were printed with unique elephant designs he figured would make great gifts for friends and family.
“People loved them,” he recalls.
When Coleman searched the web to find more, he came up empty handed. A gap had been identified and a business idea was born. “What if I could source these pants and sell them online in a way that also helps the elephants I saw in Thailand,” Coleman wondered.
The concept would be proven in dramatic fashion via a Kickstarter campaign that attracted 278 backers who pledged more than $8,400 and was overfunded by several thousand dollars. Suddenly, Coleman had the missing link necessary to connect people with elephants they may never touch or even see in person.
The Elephant Pants, an ecommerce company that offers stylish elephant-printed harem pants and donates ten percent of the profits to save elephants, was born. “We knew it would be a challenge because 99-percent of people will never get to see an elephant in person,” Coleman says.
The pants were the tangible link that forged a connection between human and beast. In fact, Coleman suggests 70-percent of consumer decisions, when buying elephant pants, are based on the donation the company makes to the African Wildlife Foundation.
“People want to do good things with their disposable income,” Coleman says. “We help people feel better about spending their money because they become a part of something bigger when they purchase elephant pants.”
Unfortunately, though, The Elephant Pants would soon make a decision that would impair its effort to save the elephants.
And endanger the company’s future in business.
Saying Goodbye to Shopify
The pants were hitting the mark commercially and emotionally.
Not only were they trendy and popular with the yoga crowd, and ultimately a broader market of 18-24 year-old women, but The Elephant Pants had hit a nerve in the way it positioned its brand as an advocate for elephants -- innocent creatures can’t speak for themselves and deserve better than to be hunted and killed for their ivory tusks by the tens of thousands.
“We were with Shopify from day one,” Coleman says about the company’s ecommerce platform. “But we wanted to scale quickly, so we started looking around.”
The Elephant Pants left Shopify for another ecommerce platform in November of 2015 and quickly realized its mistake. “They told a great story, promised us the world, and delivered a bag of shit,” Coleman says. “Even during the initial integration the relationship wasn’t good, but we kept telling ourselves it would get better.”
It never did, though.
With a monthly fee of 8% of The Elephant Pants’ sales, Coleman says his company would have owed more than $300,000 to the platform had it stayed an entire year. The Elephant Pants endured what it calls months of underperformance and an inability to scale efficiently and without hidden costs.
“There was absolutely no transparency,” Coleman says.
With total monthly expenses at least five times that of Shopify Plus, an enterprise ecommerce solution for high volume merchants, Coleman says the company would have to wait weeks for simple integrations that can be done in minutes with Shopify:
- Facebook retargeting pixel implementation
- Customer returns that took three extra days to process
“It created more work for us and slowed us down,” Coleman says.
Despite all of that, Coleman says The Elephant Pants thought it was having a terrific holiday selling season in 2015. That is until he says he got a surprise bill in early 2016 for more than $100,000 for additional shipping costs.
It turns out, the platform’s shipping calculator was broken and The Elephant Pants owed much more than it thought to ship each of those holiday orders. “We thought we were going to be up 7-percent during the holidays,” Coleman says. “Instead, we were actually down 7-percent because of all the costs that came out of nowhere.”
Not only did The Elephant Pants lose a lot of money.
But it wasn’t generating any profits which meant it wasn’t able to donate a portion to save the elephants with which Coleman had fallen in love. “We were already in such a hole,” Coleman says of the company’s financial situation. “Not being able to fulfill our mission of saving the elephants was devastating.”
To save the elephants, the company would first have to save itself.
Even when The Elephant Pants decided to leave Shopify, Coleman was impressed with his account manager’s performance and willingness to assist with the transition. “Richard Estabrooks was really helpful,” Coleman says. “We actually kept in contact with him because he’s someone we trust.”
It’s often said that character is revealed during difficult times.
Not only was that the case when Shopify lost a valued customer, but also when The Elephant Pants made the difficult decision to cut bait, despite the massive investments it had made replatforming away from Shopify.
Rather than make the same mistake many ecommerce merchants make - sticking with an ineffective platform just because you’ve already spent a lot of time and treasure on it - Coleman ended the relationship and came back home to Shopify Plus.
“Richard was right there to welcome us back with open arms,” Coleman says. “Our old platform acted like a scorned ex-girlfriend when we left and caused us some problems.
Thankfully, Richard was right there to quickly answer our questions and help us in ways that would’ve taken our old platform weeks.”
Besides saving hundreds of thousands of dollars, The Elephant Pants’ switch to Shopify Plus meant it would not longer be spending half its time fixing a broken platform which prevented it from marketing and creating a better user experience.
“Shopify alleviates all the time we used to waste on development,” Coleman says. “For example, Shopify has allowed us to focus on reducing shopping cart abandonment which is improving our top line.”
As a result, the company expects to once again begin donating a cut of the profits to saving the elephants by the end of the quarter. “That means a lot to us,” Coleman says. “Shopify is helping us fulfill our mission.”
Coleman jokes Shopify Plus is so easy to use even a terrible coder like him can easily integrate third party applications. With a focus on the future rather than technology, The Elephant Pants is positioned to achieve efficiencies of scale it couldn’t imagine on its old platform.
We’ve accomplished more with Shopify Plus in two weeks than we did in six months with our old platform.
Inspiring an Uprising
You’ll never see it.
But Shopify’s detailed analytics reports Coleman is using to turn The Elephant Pants’ site into a place where users enjoy the ecommerce experience as much as the charitable cause underpinning it, is one you can expect the company to exponentially magnify in the coming years:
- Product line extensions
- The development of branded products
- Increased brand awareness that leads to social change
“The grass isn’t always greener,” Coleman says about other platforms. “Don’t just listen to the sales pitches. Check out the reviews and case studies with actual customers like me. And be sure to pay attention to the exit clauses in the contracts. The fees just to leave other platforms can be egregious.”
Ultimately, the goal for The Elephant Pants is to slow the elephant population decline. The company sees its role in doing so as educating young people who’ll ultimately help bring about change with their pocketbooks. “We want to inspire an uprising,” Coleman says. “Brands like ours attract a younger demographic that is both viral and passionate about doing good. We want to give them the tools to champion a cause and make a difference.”
As the company grows, so too do the odds that elephants like the one with that tear in its eye that so deeply impacted Coleman, will no longer be targeted by those with profits in their sites and guns in their hands.
“You don’t need ivory,” Coleman says. “No one needs ivory but elephants.”
About The Author
Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.