In 2014, Justin Kemperman was a bored New Jersey teen who wanted to make some money. But he was also driven. After watching a few YouTube videos about the business of reselling items on Amazon and eBay, he figured he would give it a shot. So, he took all the money in his wallet (USD80) and asked his dad to drop him off at a nearby second-hand store. There, he sat down in the board game aisle, pulled up the Amazon app on his phone, and began scanning the value of the miscellaneous items lining the shelves.
In only six months, he had made USD500 selling his neighbors’ discarded goods.
“It was actually so much fun,” he remembers. “I could buy board games from the 90s or older for two or three dollars and then sell them for like 70 bucks. People in the aisles were looking at me weirdly. But to me, it was fascinating.”
Drawing people’s attention is something Kemperman would have to get used to: From camping out at resale shops as a 14-year-old, to making millions in sales and launching — then successfully exiting — industry-disrupting company, Shine Armor, all before he could legally buy a beer, Justin is a bit of an ecommerce wunderkind.
Going above and beyond the digital natives of his generation, his success stems from a serious work ethic, his ability to pivot quickly, and a keen sense of where he could make the most impact.
Chasing successful strategies
“My parents thought it was cool and interesting, but we really didn’t think it would be this big of a business,” he admits regarding his first venture. “I had all these dreams of doing giant things and building big businesses, like people I’d seen on TV and read books about. I just thought it would be a good starting point that ended up being really fun.”
Despite the fun, it was a lot of work. And as a freshman in high school, he still had to rely on his father for rides to source his products.
Eager to find a more passive business model, he once again turned to YouTube. A fast learner, he discovered that people sold short, specialized e-books on Amazon to turn a profit. He dove right in, hiring a writer through Upwork, a graphic designer to create the cover and entered in the appropriate key search words. For USD0.99, he listed the 50-page book, which focused on website creation for beginners, and saw rapid success.
“It quickly became, ‘how many more books can I launch?’ It really snowballed. With every penny I had, I reinvested it and it grew month over month,” he says, recounting how some months he made a few thousand dollars. “There were challenges, of course, but it taught me about building a team, how to just leverage my time, and I was able to network with a lot of people, where I learned a lot of great strategies along the way.”
This came in handy when an algorithm change from Amazon led to more eyeballs on Kemperman’s books, but less revenue coming his way. Harnessing the virtual network he had created, he discovered a strategy that capitalized on the changed algorithm, allowing him to make up to USD150,000 in total.
At the same time, Kemperman opened an online T-shirt store and learned how to run online ads and acquire customers in the digital landscape.
“That was a real skillset that I built, partnering with my current business partner, Brandon [Monaghan],” he says. “We helped launch a lot of trendy products and made money that way, but at the end of the day, we didn’t feel like we were building anything of value, and that kind of gets old quick.”
Driving change in traditional industries
“We wanted to build a cool business based on multiple products with a passionate niche of consumers,” Kemperman says of what would eventually be known as Shine Armor, an auto detailing and car care product line.
True to his scrappy, bootstrapping ways, Kemperman and Monaghan made a minimal simple yet viable product, put together a basic website and started running Facebook ads. Shine Armor products’ popularity was almost instant.
“One of the big success principles we found early on is don’t try to force it,” he says. “When a product market fit is right, the customer base and the target market is really receptive, you know.”
Their flagship product, a 3-in-1 ceramic coating wax did a lot of work for the mass-market appealing price of USD20. They didn’t have much competition online, as the car industry traditionally stuck to stocking products in physical retail stores.
Their Facebook ads allowed them to scale and create brand awareness. Once people knew who they were, they started searching for the product on Amazon, which led to Shine Armor not only selling on Amazon, but quickly becoming the No. 1 selling car wax on the retail platform. Eventually, they were approached by a distributor who helped them get Shine Armor products in Walmarts, Targets and Home Depots across the United States.
“E-commerce is very different than what people are used to. And especially in car care, the demographic is a little bit older, many don’t want to buy online or don’t really trust your website,” he says. “Our omnichannel approach is really effective. We believe that by being in the place that customers are most happy and comfortable shopping, you can pick up more market share and get more customers.”
Shifting gears: from cars to coffee
“Shine Armor is something that we built to sell. We didn’t know that it would be this successful and that we’d have it so long, but we were always thinking about what’s the next thing to get into, and what’s the next better opportunity,” explains Kemperman, who sold the company in August 2021.
Kemperman and Monaghan’s next venture, they decided, was going to appeal to more people.
“Car care is more of a niche category. Most people don’t like the effort of having to rub down their car with products, they’d rather go to the car wash,” Kemperman says. “And even if they’re using your product and it’s really good, they’d put in their garage and forget about it for a few months, and then maybe they buy again. We wanted to be in a category that’s really impactful; products that people use frequently and continue to buy.”
The answer? Coffee. But they needed a twist, so they launched in October 2020 Javy Coffee, a liquid coffee concentrate brand that provides consumers an easier-than-instant coffee experience without sacrificing flavor.
They are following the same model they used for Shine Armor’s success: drive traffic to Shopify using paid social advertising, creating spillover to Amazon, which serves as a great customer acquisition tool, then hit retail stores. Kemperman says despite COVID-19-related supply chain issues, they are seeing revenue growth month over month since launch.
“The biggest thing for Javy now is getting mass market retail and really expanding our product line there,” he says. “We want to become an everyday product that people use all around the world, the next iteration of coffee. So, there’s a lot of market to tackle.”
Now at only 22, Kemperman has plenty of time to take on new industries, and as a member of YPO since early 2021, he’s looking forward to the networking opportunities.
“Magic happens just being around people who are where you want to go, or who are doing similar things to you, and you end up finding so many great ideas and thinking different ways,” he says. “I really do enjoy entrepreneurship and enjoy the people I work with and enjoy what I do. As corny as it is, it’s the journey not the destination, but that’s really true. All the goals I’ve set, I’ve mostly hit them, and I have more goals the more successful I get. But for now, I’m just grinding it out and enjoying it.”