Livestream Selling Is ‘QVC at its best, ‘ and It Turned This Alabama Startup Straight into a Billion Dollar Company

July 7, 2021 15+ min read

This particular story appears in the September 2021 issue of Entrepreneur . Subscribe »

Mic Hensley won’t put on a dress. Their fans would die designed for him to wear one when he livestreams in order to more than a million phones and Facebook pages while making product sales for White Coconut , which seems like a club but is actually a women’s clothing boutique he has with his wife, Sheri, in Olive Branch, Miss. “I’ll put on the cardigan or even a bunch associated with purses, ” Hensley states, laughing. “But I try out not to even perform that very often because these people just get pumped and want more. ”

Though that’s not every they want more associated with. Livestream selling not just saved the Hensleys’ company from becoming a casualty of the pandemic; this has increased sales 20 to 30 % every month, sending the Hensleys directly into a hiring frenzy that has now reached 48 employees and counting. “Once we all started doing it, ” says Mic, “everything simply type of shot to the moon. ”

Widely known as QVC upon steroids, livestream selling inside the U. S. generally features a salesperson or an changer , often in their living room (cords, tchotchkes, and pets in full view), demonstrating items and shooting the breeze with on the internet shoppers in real-time video. Viewers can say hello or ask questions in comments that float across the screen, and the livestreamer responds to them personally. Meanwhile, everyone watches a bubble that displays the particular product’s dwindling availability till it sells out.

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It’s already the craze in China, exactly where livestream shopping sales may hit $300 billion this particular year, according to Coresight Research. (There, the video clip productions are more advanced and staged. ) Yet the U. S. market has been pretty groggy, estimated to be only $6 billion in 2020. That may be about to shift. Coresight, for one, predicts the market will over quadruple by 2023 as the pandemic helps accelerate preexisting ethnic shifts — especially considering that Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Shopify, and TikTok have all ambled into the space during the past couple of years.

But none associated with these platforms is the one that catapulted Pink Coconut. The Hensleys and more than six, 000 other small businesses, mostly in fast style, acquire a little-known business called CommentSold , founded four many years ago by a serial business owner in Huntsville, Ala. In no way in his wildest dreams — or, really, scarey dreams — did that man, Brandon Kruse, think he’d be in the women’s clothing business. But right here he is, a leader out in front associated with the tech giants, looking to operate “under the adnger zone, ” as he sets it, while generating the billion dollars in sales a year.

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Livestream selling may just be the potential future of on-line shopping . “And not really in five years, ” predicts Suketu Gandhi, someone at the global consulting firm Kearney. “It’s a two-year journey, thanks in order to a virus called COVID . ” During the pandemic, we’ve all gotten even more used to spending hours on video — bingeing upon Netflix, sweating on Peloton, or following influencers on TikTok. It’s not the big leap to shop that way, Gandhi states. Plus, on the company side, the connection among digital advertising and real sales has been slowly weakening. Add to that “the death of the cookie” — with browsers like Safari, Firefox, and Google pulling their support from the hidden bits of program code that let advertisers follow our online activity and target us, plus Apple letting iPhone users turn off personal data tracking — and brands may end up being scrambling for brand spanking new ways to reach customers.

Not everyone believes livestream selling will be the solution. “We are attempting to shoehorn the type of trade that works in The far east into the U. S i9000. market now, but it’s not like users are asking for it, ” says Juozas Kaziukenas, CEO of Marketplace Pulse , an e-commerce research firm. “I think to most people, this feels just like a very blatant sale. ” It may work on a specific niche market level, he says, yet for anything at range? “It’s an uphill battle. ”

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Still, it could be a rather lucrative climb. If a retailer hosts a livestream shopping event on its website, it can have got conversions of 10 to 25 percent on average plus even reach 40 %, according to Ken Fenyo, president of research and advisory at Coresight , who says the conversion rates for digital ads are generally speaking significantly lower. “People want to engage directly with the brand, ” he says. “And for that entrepreneur or store associate, it’s an opportunity to come alive about their passion for what they’re selling in an interactive way. ” That can add up to a lot, even for companies with little communities. “What’s amazing about our livestreaming clients, ” says CommentSold’s Kruse, “is how small the audience is compared with how much revenue they do. ”

Image Credit: Howard Rochelle with HR Elements

Had it not been for a repo man and an overbooked flight, Kruse would have a very different life at age 31. The repo man showed up when that he was 12 to take the family car after his dad lost his job. Seeing that, for Kruse, was just like being drop-kicked out of childhood. “I wanted to control my very own destiny, ” he remembers. He started his first business in high school. By the time he turned 21, he’d already sold DialMaxx, a telecom company, to MagicJack for $2. 6 million plus a generous earn-out, and went on to launch startups that did data storage for genomic sequencing labs, built call alert systems for your State of Alabama, and various other things he could never explain at a party.

The overbooked flight, however, would change that. In 2012, Kruse agreed to do a couple of telecom work for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It meant teaming up with an old client who brought his assistant, Amanda Halpin, along for a visit to Huntsville. After five days of Halpin remaining oblivious to Kruse’s attempts at courtship, it was only because her flight back home was overbooked that she accepted his invitation to dinner, where over her ahi tuna salad at the bougiest steak house he could find, she finally caught on. A year and a half later, she moved to Huntsville to be with him.

At that time Halpin had become an ER nurse, but she had a weirdly thriving side hustle selling clothes on Facebook . She would buy things she liked wholesale from vendors on FashionGo, where the minimum order was on average six. She’d keep one for herself and sell the other five pieces at an $8 or $10 markup — still way below the retail price. After some experimenting, she started having success with what’s now called “comment selling, ” where she’d post photos from the clothes in her Facebook group and followers would comment “sold medium” (or whatever size they were). She called her online shop Discount Divas, and soon so many of her coworkers had become customers, she took over a bank of lockers in the ER that she turned into makeshift mailboxes for their orders.

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One day in 2014, Halpin showed up at Kruse’s office to talk to him about growing Divas. He was working out of an old school building he’d converted into a startup incubator called Huntsville West. Halpin figured maybe she might be part of it.

Kruse couldn’t picture it. He was a telecom guy — Huntsville West was for tech startups. “Do you have anything else? ” he asked her. “Because women’s clothes, that’s going to be tough for me to get behind. I mean, you’re literally going to be crushed by the big guys. ”

“You think I can’t do it? ” she shot right back. “I will kill myself proving you wrong. ”

“And she did, ” says Kruse fondly. Halpin moved Discount Divas into an 80-square-foot closet in Huntsville West and hired her first employee for help invoicing, as well as a 16-year-old named Madeline Daye to come in part-time and put the clothes on hangers. As they got busier, one day Halpin took a striped dress having a tie around the waist to Daye and asked, “Can you try this on and make a video where you just talk about, like, how it fits and how it feels? ” After that, she kept asking Daye to do more. “I literally hated it, ” says Daye. “I would go home at night and cry. ”

Halpin didn’t know that at the time. All she knew was that the videos slowly started to work: That the whole first year, she had made $8, 000; now, sales jumped to $30, 000 a month. “Boxes of product were coming out of the closet and kind of infiltrating the coworking space, ” Kruse remembers. “If you see a company hustling and growing like that, it’s super motivating to be around. ”

Kruse also noticed his girlfriend was up all night with her Google spreadsheets, looking to get a handle on who had paid, who hadn’t, and if they weren’t likely to pay, who was next in-line. He had always had a hard time passing up a problem he could solve (and he had fallen for her—there was that). “I kind of jumped in to the entrepreneurial mode, ” he admits that. “I was like: ‘Let me write a program for you. ’ The joke is I’m still working on it. ”

In April 2016, Kruse built an e-commerce system for Halpin and the two did marry. Soon Discount Divas was doing $100, 000 in sales a month — and Halpin, who changed her last name to Halpin-Kruse, quit nursing. Based on her success, in 2017 Kruse a new platform for multiple retailers and, in homage, the company CommentSold. As Kruse thought about how to get other customers that year, Divas’ sales soared to $1 million per month.

“When I could see Discount Divas had an automated system, honey, I was on a detective spree trying to figure out where it came from, ” says Lorie Beth Thomas, who had a shop called Kaley Jase Boutique in Windsor, N. C. (“the middle of nowhere, ” as she puts it). She had been an ER nurse, too, and became among CommentSold’s first clients.

The company grew quickly. Kruse charged clients a subscription fee (now between $49 and $149 a month) and also took
3 to 5 percent of their sales. But in 2018, a hiccup very nearly tanked it all, then provided a pivotal insight. CommentSold — which, again, at this point was nothing more than an e-commerce platform — was primarily facilitating sales on Facebook. But during Facebook’s broader investigation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, of how outside parties were utilizing its data, the social network somehow blocked CommentSold from its system. “For a week, our customers’ revenue was down 80 percent, ” says Kruse. “They have families to feed. They have mortgages. And so they were very upset. It brought us to our knees. ”

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Kruse gathered his 25 employees and told them to drop everything and start calling and emailing everyone they could find at Facebook. He booked a ticket to San Francisco with dramatic visions in his head of even getting arrested in the company parking lot, if that’s what it accepted get someone’s attention. Fortunately, his team found a random group chat with the email address of a Facebook employee, who got them back on.

That changed Kruse’s approach to business. He’d built a mobile app for CommentSold, but only a few people were using it. Now he tried to quickly roll it out to all the retailers so they could sell straight to customers. His clients would no longer be beholden to Facebook’s rules and unpredictabilities. He told them, “You own these consumers. ”

The app turned out to be a smart move, but things were about to radically transform. In 2018, that same year, Thomas, the boutique owner in North Carolina, pinged Kruse with what would be a pivotal message: “Hey, I just did a live video with CommentSold on Facebook. ”

This confused Kruse, because the tool didn’t do live video. But Thomas, it turned out, had seen someone do livestream selling on social media, and she wished to take to it. So she managed to trick the system using CommentSold’s e-commerce platform to facilitate these sales. She suggested that Kruse may want to figure out how to make it easier.

Kruse knew livestream shopping was big in China, where influencers went ahead of the camera for eight hours a day selling their favorite products from on line malls. But would it work here? Who does actually watch a live video for even an hour and buy products?

Nevertheless, he developed a way for retailers to livestream on CommentSold to their Facebook fans, and Divas and Thomas’ shop started doing it. They would go live, say, every Thursday at 7 p. m. and for a couple of hours, gab about their families, keto diet progress, the latest pet bird mishap, and how they loved the way this particular dress they were wearing draped and could be yours for $38—and by the way, there are only three left. They could see all of the comments scrolling in (“How’s the sizing? ” “Can you wash it within the machine? ”) and answer right back. They’d also get a warn that, say, Sally was obviously a new customer and Josie bought a lot, so they could call out, “Hey, Sally; welcome to the group” and “Oh, hi, Josie; good to see you again”—a feature Kruse added after realizing the one-to-one relationship was obviously a key driver. They’d model one item after the other as people commented “Sold. ” Sales blew up.

Image Credit: Howard Rochelle with HR Elements

As CommentSold’s livestreaming feature took off, Kruse often turned to his mentor, Jim Hudson, for advice. (The two met in 2012, when Kruse loved the energy of Hudson’s genomics-research business hub so much which he lied and pretended to be part of a biotech company so he could have his office there. “When Jim found out, ” Kruse says, “he thought that was awesome. ”) “Jim was great at nailing what has to change when you get to certain milestones, ” says Kruse. “And that was invaluable to me because it’s so hard to see when you’re right in the middle of it. ” Hudson asked Kruse how many employees he had. “When I said 15, he was like, ‘Oh, you’re getting close to my number, ’ ” says Kruse. The number was 21: When you have that many employees, Hudson believes, you can no more rely on everybody else at your company to know everything. You must hire specialists. “And sure enough, ” Kruse says, “at 21, I’m like, Even the people who were previously perfect in the role now are messing up.

Hudson’s next number was 75. This one was harder for Kruse to swallow. “Jim said, ‘At this point, you have to have a COO — you really need somebody to be the operational mind, so you can step back as the visionary, ’” Kruse recalls. “I said, ‘But I love operating. ’ And he’s like, ‘No, you don’t. You truly love building. ’ ”

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Kruse seemed he was losing touch with his company, but he followed Hudson’s advice. The guy he hired as COO was Andy Smith, formerly cofounder and CEO of the workout company Daily Burn. They knew one another through the small Huntsville entrepreneur circle. At the time, Smith was taking a year off to try out golf, and not getting much better at it. “I’ll function as the first to admit, ‘Oh, man, I don’t really get excited about selling women’s clothes online, ’ ” Smith says. “But what I liked is that there were no investors. And when I played with the tool, I thought it sucked — it was broken in a lot of ways. So I said, ‘This is just a great opportunity. ’ ” With the operational details handled, Kruse was able to zero in on his customers to really start kitting out the platform. Soon his retailers could run their entire social e-commerce business on CommentSold, with human experts to guide them.

All the while, Kruse tried to keep the company beneath the radar. “We wanted to get big and make sure we built the right thing and stay ahead of everyone, ” he says, “because someone might have raised a lot of money and positively reached the market quicker. ”

But staying invisible started getting harder. In 2019, Amazon enabled livestream selling for influencers and brands in its market­place. Ever since then, Facebook and Instagram have begun experimenting with it, too, and Walmart is partnering with TikTok for one-off shopping events. Google can also be dipping its toes in. Brands like Nordstrom and Estée Lauder are having fun with the medium. And other independent apps and platforms, like TalkShopLive, Bambuser, and ShopShops USA, are hitting the market. “Just since December, we’ve seen more than $100 million of capital flow in to the space, ” says Chris Erwin, founder of RockWater, a market research and strategy advisory firm.

The pandemic only upped the appeal. For CommentSold, gross merchandise value grew 150 percent in 2020. Of the more than 6, 000 clients on the platform today, some 150 do more than $100, 000 a month in sales; several do more than $1 million. Now Kruse plans to expand to other kinds of businesses.

“I mean, there’s no way this does not get hypercompetitive, ” says Smith. “But that’s what keeps us up at night. We really wish to win. ”

This March, Kruse had something else to keep him awake: a three-month-old son named Camden. Divas did $2. 7 million in sales that month. And Madeline Daye, the 16-year-old who cried over its first videos? She’s now its director of sales and one of the best livestream sellers in the business; she just bought her first house at age 22.

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“Compared to a other companies, this is so cool, ” Kruse says, “because I was just trying to solve the problem for one person: What do I need to build to help make your life easier? ” That thinking still drives him, even at the scale CommentSold has achieved. It now has a Facebook group because of its top 100 customers, where it posts designs for brand spanking new features and asks for feedback. And Kruse just implemented a policy for his now 170 employees that requires everyone to spend a day per quarter doing things like onboarding calls and support strategy to ensure they know how the retailers operate.

People always ask when he’ll start a new company. “I do miss it in the weird kind of sadistic way — the pain, ” Kruse admits, “because a startup is very exciting. ” But his focus remains on solving problems for those in the CommentSold community. “The customers know what they need, ” he admits that, “and you just have to listen to that pain and become enthusiastic about it. ”

Image Credit: Howard Rochelle with HR Elements

Lights, Camera, Live!

Want to try boosting sales through livestream selling? You don’t need an influencer; you just need to get over your own awkwardness on camera. Here’s what CommentSold’s retailers have learned works.

Be consistent.

Think about livestreaming like it’s an old TELEVISION show: You want to build viewers’ habits of watching. Go live at least once per week, and do it on the same day and same time — say, Monday and Wednesday at 8 p. m.

Create FOMO.

You have to make a reason for people to tune in — and buy! It doesn’t have to be a discount or giveaways. Having new items each time is essential, and limited amounts drive up sales.

Be yourself.

The more authentic you are, the better. “Don’t worry about having a set with cameras and multiple cut feeds and things like that, ” says Kruse. “If any such thing, we’ve actually seen that perform worse because it almost feels like you’re being sold to. ”

Get personal.

Make customers seem like they’re hanging out with friends and shopping. “We’ll see certain names and we’ll holler at them, like, ‘Oh, you’re here! ’ ” says Lorie Beth Thomas, owner of the Kaley Jase Boutique in North Carolina. “It makes a community. ”


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