college coolersbyu

How This Entrepreneur Revolutionized a Classic College Tradition

For those who never participated in Greek life during college, the custom of cooler painting might seem a bit odd. But as anyone who was part of a fraternity or sorority knows from experience, cooler painting has become one of the most popular traditions that Greek communities participate in today.

Although it initially started as a gift-giving custom between sororities and fraternities during formal events, cooler painting is now a trend that encompasses a broad variety of college life, such as football tailgating and spring break. It’s also a custom that has caught on nationwide and today, tens of thousands of coolers are purchased and painted every year. No one is more familiar with this tradition than Garrett Barretta, the 25-year-old founder of COOLERSbyU.

The early days: Identifying a market need

There’s also no one who better understands how error-prone and frustrating the cooler painting process can be.

While Garrett was attending college at the University of Delaware, he recognized firsthand the headaches associated with sanding, priming and painting coolers. For students that undertook the task, it would often require 10 to 15 hours of physical labor to do the job right. And even then, much of the applied paint would begin to chip and peel within a few months.

As Garrett evaluated the problems associated with the traditional painting process, he realized that there was a tremendous market opportunity available to anyone who could revolutionize the workflow. Because most coolers were designed with a rough outside texture that paint would not adhere to, he figured that creating a cooler with a smooth external lining would significantly reduce the probability that applied paint would chip or peel. Garrett also recognized that offering coolers with a white outside shell would be much easier to paint than the traditional red or blue coolers that were commonly found at most retail stores. And finally, by selling these customized coolers alongside ready-to-use packages of brushes, paint and sealer supplies, Garrett determined he could become a one-stop shop for all the materials needed to manage the cooler painting process. This combination of products, he believed, would be revolutionary for Greek life communities around the country.

Armed with this knowledge, Garrett set about developing his products and perfecting his business model. He officially founded COOLERSbyU in late 2016. It was a bold investment for a fresh-out-of-college graduate, but Garrett was confident that the market need was significant.

(COOLERSbyU product image)

Related: From Basement to Booming Multi-Million-Dollar Business: The Value of a Startup Mentality

Demand grows quickly, but at a cost

As Garrett correctly anticipated, demand for his tailored cooler-painting kits was high. And given the tight-knit nature of Greek-life communities, it didn’t take long for word to spread. After selling about 50 coolers during November to December of 2016, order volumes skyrocketed to nearly 1,000 in 2017. Orders were arriving from his home state of Delaware, all the way south to Florida, and even out west in states like Arizona and California. Garrett also had several sorority and fraternity chapters ordering his kits in bulk, and his home-town college began selling them directly out of the on-campus gift shop. It was essentially the best-case scenario that Garrett could have hoped for. And as triple-digit growth continued into 2018, Garrett was thrilled with his budding success. But for a single employee fulfilling orders out of his home, this exponential growth was becoming difficult to support.

During his first several months in operation, Garrett was only fulfilling two to three new orders per week. Given the limited demand, coolers were easily stored in his garage, packaged on his kitchen table, and shipped directly from his driveway. It was a process he could manage entirely on his own, and he was content to do so at first. But with sustained growth resulting in order volumes of 40 to 60 per day during his busy season, managing the fulfillment process became almost impossible on his own. Storing and packaging bulky items like coolers was time-consuming and exhausting, and Garrett’s bandwidth was being stretched dangerously thin. Ultimately, as he watched his garage and basement fill to the brim with coolers he needed to package and ship, it became clear that a change was needed.

Adjusting operations to support continued expansion

As Garrett’s customer base continued to expand, he recognized that he would soon be unable to execute order fulfillment by himself. Even with the help of his family and close friends to package and ship orders at nights and on the weekends, managing the process in-house was simply unsustainable. And with a demanding Millennial and Gen-Z college audience that was requesting access to faster and cheaper shipping options, Garrett knew he needed to act quickly.

As Garrett began the process of selecting an e-commerce warehouse fulfillment provider, there were several areas of functionality he knew would be essential. For instance, he knew that the heavily seasonal demand cycles his business was experiencing (in-line with college football seasons and social event schedules) would require flexible storage space that could be scaled up or down as needed throughout the year. He would also need access to a warehouse and inventory management solution that could integrate with his e-commerce platform, BigCommerce, for automated order processing. And finally, he wanted access to equipment and personnel that could manage the entirety of order fulfillment workflows on his behalf and guarantee delivery within to to three days for all his customers.

Upon beginning discussions with several vendors, it quickly became clear to Garrett that few solutions were capable of providing the tailored support his business required. Although enterprise-grade fulfillment solutions were available for the largest companies, few providers existed that were customized to fit small businesses like his. There was Amazon FBA, but even that could not give Garrett the level of efficiency and control he wanted. However, upon discovering an “on-demand” warehousing and fulfillment space in late 2018, Garrett realized he may have found his match. And in early 2019, the deployment of such a service gave Garrett the distribution network he needed to continue expanding his business without exhausting himself or his financial resources.

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How did the transition work and what are Garrett’s next steps?

As of Mid-October 2019, demand for Garrett’s products was still steadily increasing. The cooler painting tradition is still in full swing at colleges across the nation, and awareness of his brand continues to spread. But while this sustained expansion would have exasperated him in the past, Garrett is experiencing very few growing pains these days.

Now that he is outsourcing his warehousing and fulfillment process to a specialized provider, he doesn’t have to worry about spending long nights packing and shipping orders out of his home. Instead, his on-demand provider stores his coolers, packages new orders as they are captured by his e-commerce platform, and then ships them out to customers on his behalf.

It’s a relationship that has afforded Garrett a 20 to 30 percent drop in shipping costs, and the ability to provide one- to two-day delivery for 90 plus percent of his customer base. These deliverables have been essential for effectively servicing his college-age consumer base. And because he no longer has to fulfill orders himself, he is saving 25 to 30 hours of manual labor per week during high-demand periods, which has enabled him to focus on other, more strategic business functions.

Moving forward, Garrett plans on furthering his presence across the U.S. to reach more colleges and is also interested in expanding into other sectors beyond just Greek life. His initial forays into new markets have proven promising, as a large motorsports-affiliated organization recently made several bulk purchases. As Garrett is now on track to experience his third straight year of triple-digit revenue growth, the future looks bright for COOLERSbyU.

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