In 2014, Billiards.com, Inc. (which also runs PoolCues.com, PoolTables.com, and PoolTablesDirect.com) was named 8th on the 10 fastest growing companies in Portland, Oregon by Inc. Magazine, and has quietly become the largest independent retailer of pool tables in the United States (through pooltables.com). The story behind the growth and operations behind Billiards.com, Inc. is both interesting and impressive.
Billiard Retailer Success Story of Billiards.com, Inc. eCommerce
Billiard Retailer Success Story of Billiards.com, Inc. eCommerce
Billiards.com, Inc. was founded in 2007 by Lou Doctor, a Portland investment banking executive, and serial entrepreneur who had previous eCommerce successes with BikeTiresDirect. In a mixergy.com interview in May of 2011, Lou said he came upon the billiards.com domain by accident.
I was involved in the investment banking side, helping people sell companies and occasionally I would get involved in the sale of a high profile domain name. So I helped sell Deals.com and Healthcare.com, and a bunch of other names. And then the bike business was always very busy in the summer but very slow in the winter, so I started looking at the possibility of finding a sport that was busy in the winter and slow in the summer to keep the warehouse a level operation.
With this in mind, and a chance meeting with the previous domain name owner, Nicholas (Nick) Alexander (owner of the Clicks Billiards, Inc. pool hall chain), the wheels were set in motion.
I met a guy who owned billards.com, his name is Nick Alexander, he owned a chain of pool halls in Texas and [I] convinced him to put up an eCommerce site on it by selling me the name, but giving him an equity interest in the business. And that formula has been replicated.
Interesting deal. Also interesting is the foresight Alexander had in originally registering the domain names for his pool hall chain well before the boom at the turn of the millennium. He registered clicks.com and billiards.com among others, and was interviewed in 1999 for an article about getting key domain names for a business:
Clicks Billiards may not be the biggest pool-hall chain in the world, but it’s got something that most of its rivals don’t – A great domain name.
[…] Clicks’ address [is] billiards.com [and they] also have clicks.com. […] Dallas-based Clicks is a good example of why the addresses are so important. The company’s site includes a list of its 21 pool halls, an electronic bulletin board, standings of pool leagues and free classified ads. Eventually, Clicks plans to start selling billiard cues and other accessories over the site.
“Our goal, our potential, is to develop it into a portal for the sport,” says President Nick Alexander.
After Lou acquired the Billiards.com domain from Alexander, he got the website and business up and running by the spring of 2007, and has replicated the same formula several times again with several other generic cue sport-related properties, including PoolCues.com, PoolTables.com, and PoolTablesDirect.com, which he runs under the Billiards.com, Inc. umbrella.
Since then, sales from the billiard business reached $8 million by 2013, growing over 460% since 2010. As of January, 2015, Billiards.com, Inc. is ranked 15 on the list of Oregon companies based on this growth. All of this was accomplished with only 14 employees.
In the summer of 2013, growth reached 480% according to the Portland Business Journal, which ranked Billiards.com, Inc. 8th among Portland’s top private companies.
The company attracts sales through pay-per-click advertising and a fairly decent organic ranking in the search results. Lou talks about the company’s strategy for maintaining it’s number one position:
You have to figure out how to make money as number one. So the challenge really is, if you take a high traffic search term, let’s say “pool tables.” All right, you search for pool tables on Google, we’re number one. So that click, let’s say, cost me $1.00, right? I’ve got to monetize that visitor to generate more than $1.00 of gross margin in order to recover that $1.00 or otherwise the system doesn’t work. So you need to spend a lot of time looking at how people interact with the site coming off of a high volume search term and make sure that you’ve done enough testing to make that interaction profitable.
They have also done affiliate programs and direct banner advertising on other popular cue-sport websites in the past. They also run social media campaigns, with each website having a presence on Facebook and Twitter, etc.
They also have “occasional” sales e.g. a sales campaign at every conceivable moment. Images of these sales events can be found on the PoolTables.com Facebook page, with names like: “Daylight Savings Sale“, “Pre-Holiday Sale“, “Columbus Day Sale“, “Shark Week ‘Pool Shark Savings’ Sale“, and “Summer Solstice Sale” just to name a few. Lou Talks about the sales strategy in his mixergy.com interview:
…for example in the pool tables business on pooltables.com, those are all house branded products so we have no MAP restrictions. We can literally sell any product for any price at any time. So that gives us unrestricted flexibility.
What we found in the case of a pool table, it’s an average ticket price of about $2,000 so you’re probably not going to buy the first time you land up on the site. So having an offer that is too tight on time is actually a negative. If you said, “24 hour sale on pool tables,” the number of people that would click on that ad and then reach for their credit card within 24 hours is small. But if you have an ad going for “Big Memorial Day Sale” and then you basically present that consistently for a couple of weeks, you find that that repeat visitor pattern works to your advantage. They see the sale, the sale’s still on, they know when it expires, and we tend to see a big spike in sales around the expiration of the offer, and then we see another spike the next day after it’s expired with people calling up and saying, “Oh, I really wanted to buy yesterday. Can I still get that price?” So we never start a new offer right when an old one expires because we don’t want to create the reputation of someone that always has a deal going on. So we typically wait a couple of days and then launch a new offer after that.
In the same mixergy interview, Lou points out several factors he believes have been essential to the success of the company:
Being based in a sales-tax-free region e.g. Portland, OR
Handling the IT infrastructure in-house (vs. outsourcing it, such as the shopping cart, etc) so they can quickly adjust and make customization or changes as needed (whereas off the shelf eCommerce software is not as flexible, etc.). (Lou and his business partner Scott Torborg founded CartLogic to build a common platform for his online stores.)
Having a good general manager who knows the business e.g. cue sports. Billiards.com, Inc. has Mark Gehrke, Director of Retail Operations to oversee the day-to-day management.
Treat supplier relationships with great care, especially in eCommerce. Develop trust with the manufacturers you deal with and exceed their expectations.
Always present your eCommerce customers with a “why buy from us” blurb as soon as they land on the site and present it consistently throughout the experience.
With PoolTables.com, the company opened several retail locations as well, with showrooms in Norcross GA, Portland OR, Edison NJ, Houston TX, and Pico Rivera CA, making them the only “online pool table retailer” with a national retail presence, according to their website:
We are the only online retailer with a national retail store
This infrastructure has enabled PoolTables.com to become the top Spencer Marston Billiards Co. retailer and distributor. The company now operates the wholesale arm of Spencer Marston, and handles the wholesaling of their pool tables to other distributors and retailers across the United States.
PoolTables.com is a member of The Billiard Congress of America (BCA), and has partnered with some of the nation’s largest home builders. As the wholesale arm of Spencer Marston Billiards Co., we also wholesale tables to other billiard retailers and distributors across the country.
This partnership has helped to make PoolTables.com the largest independent retailer of pool tables in America, a claim found on the homepage of their website.