Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hey! My name is Mehdi Kajbaf. I'm an electrical engineering and MBA grad doing this interview from Lisbon. I'm about a third of the way through my year traveling the world, and I'm a few months into my marriage with the woman of my dreams. :)
I was born in Iran and raised in Toronto, and I'm excited to tell you the story of how I traded rush hour traffic for website traffic and a whole lot of freedom with Matboard and More!
Matboard and More brings sophistication to the old-school picture framing industry. Our mission is to make the world more beautiful, one piece of art at a time. We make it easy to get matting and framing in any size, color, and quantity.
Whether you're an everyday home decorator, an artist looking to display your prints professionally, or a larger retailer in need of thousands of economical mats, we make it simple and easy to do it all online.
I've been fortunate to have grown the business to the point where I'm personally making roughly $250,000 a year while traveling the world.
What motivated you to get started with Matboard and More?
I was on auto-pilot for most of my early life. I was a smart kid, good at math and science, and like any well-behaved Persian I decided I should study engineering. I attended and graduated the top school in Canada, University of Waterloo, and got a great job creating traffic control products. (By "traffic", I mean rush hour, red lights, and everything else we all hate as we drive to work every day.)
A year in, I realized I had no clue what I was doing with my life. It wasn't a bad life. Most people around me were really happy and enjoying it, but I started feeling trapped.
I realized if I didn't make changes I would continue down the path of a salaried engineer forever, and that scared the crap out of me. I'd always wanted to see the world, and it wasn't going to happen with two weeks of vacation a year. So I quit my engineering job, did a month in Peru (including a Machu Picchu hike), completed my MBA, and soon after launched Matboard and More.
Matboard and More is my venture with my brother and brother-in-law. And for me, the motivation was very personal. I wanted to build something amazing to gain the freedom to live my life. The passion for picture framing comes from my brother-in-law, and the technical skills come from my brother.
The company first started as a B2B business selling to a large online printing company. Then my brother built the website to launch the e-commerce side of things, but sales were slow and the site wasn't getting much traction. That was when I joined in to lead marketing and business strategy.
A great site is simply not enough to guarantee success — not even with a great product. Marketing is crucial, and you need a business administrator to keep things organized. I didn't know much about marketing, business development, or picture frames, but I did have the confidence to know I could create a successful business.
I learned during my MBA at Schulich that there is no magic bullet behind success. I met many successful business people and noticed… hey, there's nothing special about them that I don't have. They aren't super smart, super hard working, or super anything really. They just went out and did it. And I figured I could too.
It took about 4 years, and I'm proud to say I got the freedom I so badly needed. It's incredibly rewarding having the choice of living anywhere in the world and going on adventures without sacrificing my career or business.
Of course, this wouldn't be possible in this particular line of work without partners who help run the everyday operations. I can bring the customers, but operational excellence is key to keeping them coming back.
What went into building the initial product?
The Matboard and More site we launched 5 years ago was very different than what you see today. It was basically a shopping wizard that allowed you to pick your size, color, and quantity, and then check out.
We only sold matboards (no frames or accessories), and it was very simple, but it validated that people were looking for custom matting. From there we iterated numerous times on the design, and now we have hundreds more colors, frames, and accessories.
The partnership worked really well, in part because we had all the necessary skills to make it work in-house. As I said before, my brother created the website, my brother-in-law had the industry experience to find and buy equipment and set up production, and I ran all the marketing and business development.
All told, it cost about $50,000 in equipment, startup inventory, and facility setup, as well as 18 months of software development to start taking and fulfilling orders.
How have you attracted users and grown Matboard and More?
Our initial customers came from search engine marketing — almost exclusively AdWords. Our AdWords spend ramped up quickly ($1,000 in the first month, $2,000 in the second month, then about $6,000/month for 6 months).
It was critical to get traffic at the beginning so that we could get feedback on the customer experience. I spent a lot of time at this stage speaking with customers, analyzing Google Analytics data, and optimizing campaigns. We used what I learned to improve the website while continuously adding products and expanding operations.
Then it was basically an upward cycle of marketing spend, analyzing customer behavior, and optimizing the website. After 12 months we had positive ROI on our marketing spend, so we maxed out our budget.
I should point out that for 12 months, we were investing heavily and putting a lot of faith in ourselves. Sometimes that is a tough pill to swallow for some businesses, but the old adage is true: you have to spend money to make money. SEO came quickly after, and we currently rank in the top 3 for all matboard-related keywords.
For the first 2 years, our biggest expense was advertising. Acquiring customers is expensive, so we do our absolute best to keep them. (Repeat customers are 65% of our revenue.) We do this through exceptional customer service and quality work.
These positive reviews are another important factor in our growth. Having a good online reputation, and coming by it honestly, is very important for convincing people to take a chance on you.
We haven't had much success with social media or PR; it's a tough nut to crack. Partly because our business isn't really all that sexy. It's been tough to find new channels to grow the business online, since we've nearly tapped out on search. We continue to grow organically through word of mouth though. Ultimately, the best marketing is doing great work and keeping your customers happy.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We began Matboard and More offline with B2B sales. An early deal allowed us to fund our operations and build the website, which we knew would prove to be the true core of our business in this web-centric world.
As I mentioned before, we got sales through AdWords and were later able to leverage organic search. Now it's a very healthy mix of PPC, SEO, repeat business, and organic referrals.
We doubled sales in the first three years, but lately they've begun to level off. We've missed a huge opportunity not having a mobile-friendly site, but we've got a fully-responsive version on the way, and believe it'll give us a big boost.
What are your goals for the future?
Our biggest goal at Matboard and More right now is getting our responsive website launched. It's taking a bit longer than expected, but it will be a game changer.
Since we've launched our site, mobile has completely taken off and we are failing at that. It's hurting our ability to convert on social media traffic as well, which is almost all mobile.
We know it will improve every aspect of our business, so it's our top priority.
After that, we'll really focus on the frames side of our business. We've really cornered the market on custom matting, but frames are a larger and more lucrative market that's been more difficult to crack. The new website will be huge for that.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
Our biggest mistake was not fully investing our time early on. In our partnership we pretty much had two full-time co-founders and one part-time co-founder. The part timer was responsible for the technology component, and unfortunately we have been much slower at getting things done with the website.
I believe that if we'd had a full-time web developer from the first or second year, we'd be two years ahead right now. Mobile would be fully implemented and the hundreds of features and product improvements we've undertaken would have been completed much earlier.
Our second mistake has been not delegating enough. Operational success comes in the form of quality, speed, and reduced costs. As our headcount grew, we struggled with delegating tasks and building systems that worked.
Sometimes it's scary to invest in people and hire a large work force in anticipation of growth. The flip side is that work still needs to get done while you grow, so it ends up on the shoulders of the owners.
There is a balance between being a young startup where the founders do the bulk of the work, and transitioning into a true business where the founders manage and the employees execute. In short, delegation. We took much longer than necessary to make this shift, and I think it was mostly due to a low risk tolerance. However, it's also a skill set that must be developed.
For myself, it was always my goal to get out of the day-to-day operations as quickly as possible. That was a huge sign of success, and I achieved that about 14 months ago. Now I get to surf in Lisbon, party in Prague, and travel all over the world while managing and making the big decisions, while my team takes care of the day to day.
What were your biggest advantages? Was anything particularly helpful?
Frankly, our biggest advantage was picking an industry where technology had not yet taken charge. Picture framing is still a fairly old-school industry, so we had a huge advantage out of the gate. Our website was head and shoulders above the rest when it first launched.
We also have a co-founder with over 40 years of experience who was able to secure incredible deals with suppliers and set up an efficient and high-quality production system.
In fact, all of our co-founders are incredibly talented in their areas, and it's amazing to have three very distinct skill sets that come together to give us everything we need to be successful.
We did get very lucky early on in that one of our big competitors, Documounts, shut down a few weeks after we launched our site. We were able to capitalize on that and convert their customers to our own because we were ready and available at the right time. Timing truly is everything.
Another big advantage for us is that our items are extremely high-margin, so we were able to turn a profit in our first year (though we hardly paid the co-founders anything). As you get economies of scale and a steady base of customers, profitability grows very quickly. For me, one of the greatest marks of success was when shipping costs took over marketing costs as our biggest expense — two years in. We haven't looked back since.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Start. That means develop your product and launch it. Don't wait for it to be perfect. Use your dollars on testing and validating your idea, and listen closely to your customers. Iterate like crazy, never stopping the improvements, and make sure that you keep every customer you get.
The best marketing is a good product and an amazing service.
It's easier and cheaper to focus on doing all the small things right than trying to do individual huge things.
Most businesses suck at the little things — picking up the phone when someone calls, replying to emails, fixing whatever mistakes are made! Do all the small things right, make the experience great for your customers, and the money will follow.
A final piece of advice I'll give is to get as many of your systems, i.e. payment processors, customer service communications, production integrations, shipping, etc. sorted early in the game. When you are small it's so much easier to change providers and systems than once you are busy and used to something.
We've been approached by many payment processors over the years but thankfully they just validate that we already have one of the best deals which we sourced early in the process after switching multiple times.
Where can we go to learn more?
—, Creator of Matboard and More
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